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Fire Starters fuel employment skills of disabled adults

SHARE Fire Starters fuel employment skills of disabled adults

MINNEAPOLIS — As experienced campers know, it can take more than a spark to get a fire going. As those who work with disabled people know, it can take more than good intentions to improve their lives.

Now these two disparate groups are helping each other meet their goals through a program from Lifeworks Service, an Eagan, Minn.-based nonprofit that produces Fire Starters. These rather ingenious devices are the height of simplicity and recycling: Empty toilet paper tubes are stuffed with shredded paper, then dipped in melted candle wax. Once lit, they produce a continuous flame hot enough to get a campfire going.

This summer, Fire Starters will be sold for the first time in all state parks, thanks to a contract with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which apparently believes that no campout should be denied its s'mores.

Betsy Gadbois, program manager for Lifeworks, said the Fire Starters also offer users another source of warmth — the idea that you're helping people with disabilities earn money.

Assembling them helps clients develop workplace skills, such as working alongside others, that may improve their opportunities for being hired by local businesses.

On a recent morning in the Lifeworks offices in Hastings, Kevin Mauch, 39, and Tina Schwendeman, 28, were filling paper tubes with shredded paper, Mauch using a clever homemade device with tube-holding pipes he'd named Curly, Moe and Larry. After holes were punched in the filled tubes with the aid of another homemade Iron Maiden-like tool, Doug Kirchner, 31, dipped each tube in melted wax, holding it until the paper was saturated.

Once dry, the tubes were packed in threes by Nicholas Radmanovich, 20, who also attached labels to the bags. The warm, waxy scent of melted candles was in the air, as well as a steady stream of corny jokes from Mauch.

The work is focused and routine. "If you do something right the first time, you don't have to go back and do it again," Schwendeman said. Radmanovich is working at Lifeworks because he's currently between janitorial jobs. "Unfortunately, we don't have a job available in his community right now," Gadbois said. "But keeping him busy and working here is going to make him more successful. His family goes off to work, so he also wants to be working."

All the Fire Starter materials are donated by Hastings residents, who've proven overwhelmingly generous, Gadbois said. "That's the nice thing about being in a small town." Ideally, the tubes would be packed in something other than plastic bags, but they were donated by Verizon. The only cost is the label. Funds from sales of the Fire Starters go to pay the clients who assemble them.

In addition to being for sale in Minnesota state parks, Gadbois said, the starters can be purchased for home use at www.lifeworks.org/shop, or by calling 651-437-8762. They're three for $1.50, or available in packs of 60 or 120.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.