Smiles at Work

Sheltered Workshop programs benefit clients

The Inter-Mountain photos by Brad Johnson Robert Lewis proudly displays a Leland’s Lures product that he has assembled at the Sheltered Workshop in Elkins.

ELKINS — A local nonprofit has provided employment for mentally and physically challenged people for the past 38 years, and officials want to make sure the doors stay open for years to come.

“It’s such a beneficial program that we have here, and our clients love being able to work and have a purpose,” the Sheltered Workshop’s executive director, Maria Smith, said recently at the facility. “It really makes a difference in their lives.”

The mission of the Sheltered Workshop, which has been in operation since 1980, is to provide employment for mentally and physically challenged people. In recent years, the workshop has had three primary employment programs. The first is providing janitorial services for the Division of Natural Resources and other state agencies, and employs several workers who are high-functioning mentally and physically challenged people. The second program involves screenprinting t-shirts and hats and also employs a few people.

The third program, which employs the most people, involves assembling fishing lures for the Leland’s Lures company. This program has employed more than 30 people in recent years, and provides employment for low-functioning mentally and physically challenged people, officials said.

The workshop began its arrangement with Leland’s Lures several years ago when the lure company was based in Belington. The company then moved to Arkansas, but the products are still assembled at the Sheltered Workshop.

Robin Phares oversees a special machine at the Sheltered Workshop that does ‘heavy duty’ embroidering on hats and clothing. The machine can embroider four hats at once.

The nonprofit has operated in its present location, at 890 Industrial Park in Elkins, since 2000, in a building that was previously home to the West Virginia Wood Technology Center

Most of the building is now used as a warehouse; a smaller room was constructed within the warehouse, in which insulation and heating were installed, where the workers now assemble the Leland’s Lures products.

On a recent day at the facility, the employees, who include well-known local residents such as John Zirbs, Robert Lewis and Bertie Stalnaker, looked up from assembling the lure packages to greet and joke with visitors.

Currently 11 employees work in the lures assembly program, all of whom are paid minimum wage. At one point in the recent past as many as 31 worked at the facility. The workshop is hoping to receive a 14(c) certificate, which would allow the nonprofit to pay its workers less than minimum wage. This would mean more low-functioning mentally and physically challenged people could take part in the program.

At the Sheltered Workshop, there is a hum of activity, both inside and outside the lures assembly room. The workshop has offered screen printing, embroidery and signage for decades, and on a recent visit, graphics designer Nate Bennett was at his desk working on new designs for t-shirts and signs, while veteran employee Richard Smith was overseeing the screen printing process on special shirts ordered by a local business. The workshop has filled shirt, hat and signage orders for scores of businesses over the years, including some very large orders for the West Virginia Lottery.

John Zirbs works diligently on assembling Leland’s Lures products in the special work room inside the Sheltered Workshop warehouse in Elkins.

Employee Robin Phares was working with a special machine that does “heavy duty” embroidering on hats and clothing. It can embroider four hats at once, and was purchased used last year. The workshop also still makes use of a similar machine that was bought used more than 10 years ago.

Maria Smith showed visitors some of the t-shirts and hats on display in the showroom at the front of the facility.

“We do some lovely work here, and it’s not done with a lot of public money. We only receive one small grant,” she said. “This is a nonprofit that’s been supported by the community for years, and we want to continue, because it’s such a benefit to our clients.”

For more information about the Sheltered Workshop, call 304-636-1638.