The Ottumwa Courier

October 16, 2012

Tenco diversifies offerings to special needs workers and the public

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Sorting cans may teach basic work skills, boost self esteem and offer a paycheck for a job well done. But it shouldn’t be the only job ever available to people with intellectual disabilities.

The director of Tenco Industries, Ben Wright, says many of the special needs employees there have the potential to do much more.

“My goal is that we’ll become an employment network, where we find people jobs in the community, jobs for any individual with a disability,” said Wright.

He said he no longer considers Tenco to be just a “sheltered work” environment. For example, he said, sorting cans, a job traditionally done there mostly by individuals with disabilities, is more integrated. Some students from the Job Corps program come down and help, either supervising or jumping in to do some sorting themselves. People with disabilities work side-by-side with people without disabilities, something that Wright likes to see and wants to see more of.

But sorting cans is not the ultimate career goal for the Job Corps students. And it doesn’t have to be for the Tenco individuals, either.

With some training, there are plenty of Tenco workers who have disabilities, yet can go into the community and get a job based on what they can do, rather than what they cannot do.

“Eventually, we want to be looked at as an employment agency,” Wright said.

However, he cautioned, there’s not a lot of demand in southeast Iowa for pop can sorters — especially since can redemption prices dropped for recycling centers.

“We’re adding ... diversity to the services [we offer],” Wright said. “The shredding [of documents], the [growing of] tomatoes, a lawn crew.”

During their annual open house last week, Brenda Miller, Tenco’s marketing and development director told visitors of some new programs, including one they’d like to put in for Ottumwa: tomatoes.

Their Fairfield Tenco operation now has a greenhouse, which stays warm all winter. In fact, Miller said, there are days it’s actually hot in there.

The tomatoes, which taste like they’re right out of the garden, she said, will be especially desirable during the winter months. Wright agreed that the tomatoes taste fantastic and will be available as Christmas gifts that will be appreciated by hard to buy for friends.

He said the beefsteak tomatoes are grown using hydroponics and special nutrients.

“We try to keep everything as clean as possible,” Wright said. “We don’t use any dirt.”

Tenco individuals will help grow, care for, sort, wash and sell the product.

They will be able to sell them all year if they choose because Fairfield has a year-round farmers’ market, and Ottumwa is building one downtown.

Now the organization is looking for someone to donate some fairly level ground on which Tenco can build one or two greenhouses.