The opening on June 1 of the new thrift shop operated by the Van Buren County Special School represents a huge step for the staff and clients of the school.

"We have had work contracts in years past," said Neil Wilkins Jr., executive director of the school, "but we are too small for the big, long-term contracts and at best work opportunities for our adult clients have been spotty." Another factor is what Wilkins calls the invisibility of the school, and the consequential lack of knowledge of its existence, not only including the outside world but also including much of the population of the county.

The school began in Shirley in the 1973-74 time frame, but has been in the present location at Choctaw since 1977.

"The highway location not only will provide a lot of square feet for the development of client abilities, it will also give us a real footprint in the community," said Wilkins.

Like supported employment, these work contracts offer paid employment for clients who wish to take part in them, but unlike supported employment the workplace is contained within the campus patronized by the clients, is managed by the school and is not directly subject to market conditions or other factors which affect private-sector businesses.

Typically these contracts have been assembly and/or packaging of consumer products or preassembly units for larger, more complicated constructions and the work has proven to be a real hit with many clients.

Such work accomplishes a number of goals for both the school and for the clients:

— Provides real-world, productive employment for those clients choosing to take part.

— Increases self-esteem and self-reliance of participating, individuals.

— Payroll provides some relief or assistance for families of clients dependant upon their families for financial support.

— Creates enthusiasm and interest among participating clients due to sense of accomplishment proceeding from a real job doing real work and resulting in a real paycheck.

— Relates skills and concepts taught to real-life situations directly involving the clients.

After several months of looking, the school’s board finally settled on the old Treasure of the Hills building at 3368 Highway 65S, just south of Clinton, and went on the dotted line to finance the building and its renovation.

The thrift shop had been located downtown for some time but had only very limited space and no room for storage and little parking.

The new location has space for receiving and processing of donated items, much more space for display of items for sale, a corner for used books and the anticipation of handling future goods such as housewares, small furniture items and the like.

Much of the impetus for the entire project came from the late Jo Brown, a longtime employee of the school and a tireless worker for the thrift shop, said Wilkins.

Renovation of the building and readying it for the opening consumed the last few months. Employees are busy now establishing methods of handling the goods and setting up procedures; clients will begin working at the store when school resumes the first week of August after the July summer break.

For the present the store will be open from 8 :30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., said Wilkins, and will be open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

At present it isn’t known how many of the 27 adult clients will choose to take part in the store’s operation but Wilkins says from past experience perhaps half, around 15, will be both capable and interested; but however that works out every effort will be made to insure a fair distribution of work hours depending on the store’s needs and on individual clients’ abilities, desires and capabilities.

There is a special minimum wage structure for these situations, which the school will use; in addition some jobs will involve piece rates, while others are not suited for that.

"We’ll never be in the tall cotton, but if we meet our note, pay our bills and provide real jobs for our clients to help with their personal development, then we’ve accomplished our purpose," said Wilkins.

So far, he added, community response has been great, utilities bills have been less than anticipated due to good insulation in the building, and the note payment has turned out to be a bit smaller than originally planned.