A weak economy can make any work-a-day job easier to take, but none could be happier than the crew who report to CVR on Industrial Way in Eatontown. It's definitely not the building that inspires them. Inside the warehouse, conference rooms and classrooms have a worn, non-profit feel. Rooms are cramped and the lighting is office building unflattering. And yet, everyone here is smiling. Really, everyone.
At an anger management group session, the participants wave enthusiastically and shout hello when introduced to a reporter. And for Patch's benefit the group leader asks a woman with headphones around her neck, "What do you do when you're angry?" "I listen to music or walk away," she says, adding with a smile, "I love music."
But if everyone is so happy here, why do they have anger issues? Because this warehouse/classroom space is a facility for people with disabilities or mental or behavioral health issues, which have left them on the fringes of society. The people here aren't immune to the pain of being passed over, for a job or a friendship, or the anger that the pain can turn into.
CVR stands for Center for Vocational Rehabilitation. Besides learning to deal with their anger, here at CVR people with disabilities can learn to do their laundry, make a meal, and even play basketball, all while learning job skills and earning a paycheck, packing an ever-changing stream of goods.
The immediate goal for all the training is to get each person a job, in the outside market for those who are high functioning, and here in the warehouse for those whose challenges are greater. But the end goal is dignity.
"Everyone in this country wants to be self-sufficient," says Diane Rotondelli, sales and marketing manager for the center and its sister facility in Toms River. "It helps them feel independent to get a paycheck every week." People with special needs she says, "are grateful for any job."
Rotondelli spends her days securing orders from companies like Neptune-based TFH, a pet supplies company, and Ranger Industries in Tinton Falls, which makes craft supplies. The businesses contract CVR's worforce, which tops 150 now, to package their products and fulfill orders. Besides chew toys and craft paper, workers have packaged beer pong machines, body bags and condoms, to name of few of the more colorful products. The work is repetitious and not terribly interesting, and yet there is no shortage of smiling, dependable workers here.
In the outside job market, Rotondelli says, businesses are often reluctant to take a chance on a worker with disabilities. In that, the loss is not just the worker's.
"They're reliable. They come to work early, rarely get sick. They do their work without distraction. We get caught up in gossip. They don't."
And if cheer is an attribute employers are looking for, then CVR is the right place to provide workers. "They are happy, happy people," Rotondelli said. "Besides Disneyland, I like to say we're the happiest place on earth."
Before Charlie of Tinton Falls came to CVR four years ago, he was barely speaking. Charlie has Aspergers Syndrome and though he was an adult, he was still living at home. Now at 29 he is living on his own, working at CVR, smiling and chatting, and playing basketball. When Patch met Charlie he was still riding the high of his team's first game and big 60-5 victory over the NJ Red Hawks, another team of special needs players.
But none could be prouder of the victory than CVR President and CEO Russell Anderson, a gregarious man with a broad grin and heart, he says, for the meek. Anderson began as a job coach 15 years ago and never left because he said, "There's nobody better than special needs people. Look in their eyes. You see the innocence, naivete, hope and love. They are a joy to be with."
Anderson installed a basketball court inside the warehouse so that on Tuesdays the place could be cleared out for practice. The court is another tool for CVR to help individuals with disabilities learn social and team skills and boost their quality of life.
Now the staff of CVR are thinking about a volleyball team. Charlie, a man who once rarely spoke to people, smiled when he heard this news and said, "Maybe I can do that too."
Some of the participants here need more than a team sport and so CVR provides drug and alcohol counseling and psychiatric services too. They are services intended to keep people out of a hospital situation with the mental stability that comes from being an independent person, a part of a community, and gainfully employed. Places like Walmart, Shoprite in Hazlet and even the state police located at Fort Monmouth have CVR participants. After employment, the center continues to lend support.
There is also a school to work program with Middletown High School North, which sends a group of about 10 students, mostly with autism, to learn at the center. Besides their school lessons, these students are learning job skills so that upon graduation they can be a part of the CVR workforce.
Rotondelli said CVR has been impacted by the economic downturn, just as other businesses have. Nevertheless, its impressive list of clients continues to grow. The Eastern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce relys on the center to do their bulk mailings. Schering-Plough pharmaceutical corporation in Kenilworth and All-Fastners in Ramsey are customers too. Soon the center will launch a waterless car detailing business.
But growing the business is not why Anderson and his staff are committed to the work.
"It's to make sure they have the life that you do," he said.