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W.Va. water bottler sees potential in disabled workers

SHARE W.Va. water bottler sees potential in disabled workers

LESAGE, W.Va. — From the road, there's nothing obviously remarkable about the little stretch of flat land running alongside the Ohio River in Lesage.

Beyond the sign for "Green Acres" there's just a scattering of dated brick buildings and an old greenhouse.

Outside it doesn't look like there is much going on. But inside, some of those buildings are alive with activity.

Lab coat-wearing workers with goggles and surgical masks strapped to their faces busily fill water-cooler bottles with LeSage Natural brand spring water.

"It's so pure, we've been told by the health department that we shouldn't have to run it through our machines — but we do," said Debbie Birthisel, executive director of the nonprofit Green Acres Regional Center.

The 3- and 5-gallon bottles are capped and then stacked on racks, which are then stored along with pallets loaded with cases of 20-ounce bottles. The bottles will be later collected by trucks and delivered to locations throughout the Tristate area.

Drawn from 75-foot-deep wells fed by underground lakes, the award-winning water is considered one of the best-tasting, purest waters on the market. It took fourth-place honors in the Best Purified Drinking Water division at the recent International Water Tasting in Berkeley Springs.

LeSage Natural, bottled at Green Acres, is carbon-filtered, exposed to ultraviolet light, and purified through reverse osmosis. And while the water is remarkably clean (it's so pure it freezes clear), what makes LeSage water and Green Acres special isn't what they put in those bottles. It's who does the pouring.

More than half their water workforce is made up of developmentally disabled adults from Cabell, Mason, Lincoln and Wayne Counties — about 17 people, said Devin Slone, director of programs and facilities at Green Acres.

It's work experience for some and a career for others. "We have people who've been here for as long as 20 years," he said. "Others have been here only a few months."

Developmental issues among their workers range from autism to mental retardation to impairments caused by injury, not that any of that seems to be a problem for the workers on the floor of the bottling factory.

Everyone works at a steady pace and seems to know exactly what they're doing. There's supervision, safety and a sense of professionalism.

Nobody seems to be goofing off.

"They're good workers," Slone said. "And they want to be here."

Most come right out of high school.

"I like it. It's the first job I've ever had," said Alex Johnston, a 20-year-old from Cabell County.

"I really enjoy it and would rather be here than home all day," said Becca Barbour, 22, also from Cabell County.

These are paid positions with benefits.

Birthisel said, "Everyone makes minimum wage. They get sick leave, annual leave and retirement benefits."

The staff at Green Acres is an integrated workforce. Along with the 17 workers with disabilities, they also employ 14 who are not disabled.

"It's part of our mission," Slone said, adding that their disabled workers tend to be more reliable. They don't call off from work because they don't feel like working or because they stayed up too late the night before. "They show up," he said.

Long before they got in the business of bottling water, Green Acres was a center for the mentally disabled. It was established in 1968 by a group of families with disabled children.

"They wanted someplace for their children to live when they grew up," Slone said.

The families lobbied the Legislature, and the state of West Virginia leased them a 20-acre tree nursery for 99 years for $1.

Green Acres still offers greenhouse services and has a separate lawn care and landscaping business.

After they got the lease, cottages were built. People with developmental disabilities moved in and the mission of the company evolved. They worked with area schools, which sent their special education students to Green Acres.

"It was kind of baby-sitting," Slone said.

Students sometimes learned arts and crafts. They watched a lot of movies, he said.

Buses would pull up and there was a near constant stream of people. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with all of them.

"But times changed, and how we looked at people with these kinds of disabilities changed with them," Birthisel said.

By the early 1980s, Green Acres began bottling water in 8-ounce containers. David McGinnis, administrator for the company, pushed for them to develop services they could market to the community and the state.

"He was really a visionary," Slone said. "He pushed for us to be self-sufficient because he knew state and federal funding could dry up."

Green Acres had many tough years, he said. They had a quality product, but had a lot of trouble with getting it out to the public.

"We had lousy service," Slone said. "Nobody every complained about the water. They loved our water, but hated our service. We just weren't reliable."

Reliability had nothing to do with their staff and everything to do with their trucks. They only had a couple. One of them was ancient and prone to mechanical problems.

"It was old," Slone laughed. "It was like something out of the 1950s."

And the floorboards were rusted through. "You could look down through the floor and see road," he said.

Service is better because the trucks they have now are better. They have three of them for water delivery, but Birthisel and Slone said they worry about keeping up with deliveries and tacking on miles.

Their operation is more modern too. They can bottle about 8,000 gallons of water per day, which is also about what they ship out. Bottles don't sit around in the warehouse for long.

"But we'd like to do more," Slone said. "We could do more."

"We're not everywhere in West Virginia," he acknowledged.

They'd like to be, but in the meantime, water bottled at Green Acres is sold in West Virginia State Park gift shops and at Tamarack. It's the water of choice for state agencies, and the company also has quite a few commercial and residential contracts.

"We had a bit of an uptick after last year's water crisis in Charleston," he said.

People who knew about them told their friends, and people came for their water. Some of them didn't go back.

Unfortunately, they're not quite self-sufficient yet. They still count on public money from the state and the county to make ends meet.

The way they see it, Green Acres has only skimmed the surface of what they could do. With additional funding, they could increase their delivery area, tap into new markets and employ more people with disabilities.

Slone pointed out that LeSage Natural is a West Virginia-made product, run by West Virginians, with wages paid to West Virginia workers.

"The money all goes right back into our economy," he said. "It gets spent here and it gives the people who spend it some independence."

"It's a win-win for everybody."

Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com