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Employer of disabled hits lean times

The Louise Graham Regeneration Center needs money, but making a profit is one of the lesser reasons.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 15, 2002

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Tracy Cabral, left, and Michelle Jovanov embrace after Cabral shares her animal crackers with her best friend Thursday during a lunch break.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Fifty years ago, the late Louise Graham started paying mentally retarded adults for their work, selling their handmade items from her garage.

Today, in a business that bears her name, between 55 and 60 mentally retarded workers shred confidential documents from legal and medical offices, bale cardboard, sort plastic lens cases and tie raffia bows around juice bottles and candy packages.

The Louise Graham Regeneration Center has never been financially flush. Now it is losing money, largely because of falling paper prices and escalating fuel costs, and it lacks cash enough to give it wiggle room.

Executive director Frank Leeds III likes to tell visitors that the board of directors hired him to shut the place down. The center had lost its contract with the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now the Department of Children and Families), which then was the money source for its clients.

"I came to close this place," he said. After he signed on, "I vowed to keep it open if it killed me, that I would give a year of my life to doing that. I'll be here 11 years in August, and it's the most incredible 11 years of my life.

"I set up the paper recycling business to provide work for our clients to do. They get nervous around some things" and lack the motor skills to keep breakable items from falling and shattering.

"Dropping paper, there's a freedom in it," Leeds said.

Private papers are safe from prying eyes; the workers can't read.

"The glory of our place is we have people who have never worked who are now working," he said. Some of the center's employees are older workers who had been on welfare.

"Traditionally, people who are handicapped work by themselves. Here, they work side by side with people in the community. This is not a sheltered workshop. We brought the community in to work with our people.

"Now the disabled have friends and co-workers who are nondisabled, and people in the community have friends and co-workers who are disabled. It's kind of a neat hodgepodge of people who are doing a rather significant work.

"In essence, we're recycling life. It's a beautiful thing to see."

Terri Griner first visited the center two years ago. She teaches first grade at Fairmount Park Elementary School and spent much of her summer vacation volunteering at the center.

Last month, she organized an Earth Day project in which pupils decorated paper grocery bags that were given to Albertsons supermarket customers, who were asked to return them filled with newspapers for recycling at the Graham center.

Today, she heads the center's board of directors, which is expanding its membership to include people with knowledge about the disabled, financial expertise, and experience with other nonprofit organizations.

For all their enthusiasm, Leeds and Griner have little control over economic challenges.

Gasoline prices have spiraled upward, and the income the center receives for recycling paper has plunged.

A ton of white paper earned $425 almost 10 years ago. Today, it brings in $125.

"As our volume increased, paper prices went down," Leeds said. "We were working harder and getting half the money.

"We're now doing about 4-million pounds of paper. That's saving the county 4-million pounds of paper a year in our landfills. It's saving the universe 65,000 trees a year. It's just a good thing to do."

The center picks up discarded paper from hotels, churches, banks and offices. To compensate for lost earnings, it sells recycled products to customers such as the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County government.

Truckloads of paper go off to a mill and come back as toilet tissue, facial tissue and paper towels.

"The next day, you're selling toilet tissue, which was your own paper to begin with," Leeds said.

The center is at a crossroads. It lost $10,000 in January; between $11,000 and $12,000 in February; $24,000 in March.

Part of the shortfall can be attributed to fluctuations in the price of paper, and part has to do with the number of mentally retarded workers the center accepts who receive no government subsidy.

"I was prepared for the first month and the second, and (then) we laid people off," Leeds said, although none of the center's disabled employees lost their jobs.

"One of my proposals to the board is that we consider closing, but the board said, 'No, we've got to find a way.' We're trying to figure out a way to do the whole thing and keep to our mission."

"I came for the funeral," Leeds said. "How much worse can it get? In 11 years, we're still as broke as we were when I came here."

The center isn't poor: It has a building, trucks, laborers, business relationships, even the potential to grow.

"I have all sorts of assets, but I have no cash. I need some cash, just for flexibility."

Cash would enable the center to buy, for example, another truck and additional containers for pickup and delivery of recyclable materials. It would allow the center to accept a project requiring several months, add temporary employees and pay them as the work is done, rather than when it is completed.

"The typical donations here were from elderly friends of Louise Graham's," Leeds said of women who would drop by with a gift of $5 or $10.

"The cash has been significant emotionally," he said, but not enough to give the center a financial cushion.

The center differs from similar organizations in that others were started by parents who were concerned about opportunities for their children and, as the agencies developed, got corporate support.

"The way Louise Graham started, she picked up people who fell through the slots of life," Leeds said. "We've never had parental support, and consequently we've never had corporate giving through those parents. We've never had a fundraiser."

"They never have had a large group of people helping them out," Griner said. "They've never asked for it."

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