It’s a unique model: a nonprofit that is both a service organization and an enterprise generator. But that’s business as usual for High Sierra Industries – Washoe Ability Resource Center, whose mission is to research, develop and implement learning systems and job development programs for people with disabilities and those who support them.
HSI and WARC were founded in 1977 and 1953 respectively as separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, both serving people with disabilities. In 2009, the two organizations merged under United Nevada Industries, also a 501(c)(3) non-profit, making it northern Nevada’s largest not-for-profit organization. HSI-WARC annually serves more than 225 people from their teens to their late 60s, from those with physical disabilities to highly independent people who have an intellectual disability, either acquired or since birth.
Partnering with the Sierra Regional Center, HSI-WARC’s Host Home program is an innovative residential services plan built around person-centered supportive living options that enable adults with disabilities to live in their community. In the iChoose Day Habilitation program, which utilizes Precision Teaching to evaluate instructional tactics and curricula, participants choose their preferred activities from a daily activities menu to develop life skills, such as communication, problem-solving and physical coordination.
Launched in January 2014, HSI’s Career Development Academy-NV provides competitive work training for students with developmental disabilities, and then places them into competitive employment within the community and with partner businesses. And iWork is a job-focused skill building service that provides people with disabilities with paid employment experience in retail, landscaping, mechanical and electrical assembly and custodial jobs.
“iWork promotes skill development, basic work readiness skills and a sense of expertise through light manufacturing to electro-mechanical tasks,” according to HIS-WARC Enterprises Director Colleen Miller. “Employees have the ability to earn at or above minimum wage while also providing the community with a valuable labor force that demonstrates flexibility, reliability and consistency.”
The Enterprise division boasts contracts with private and government partners such as Bureau of Land Management, State of Nevada, City of Reno, IGT and the Fallon Naval Air Station. According to a UNR Economic Department impact study of HSI and WARC, the two organizations together positively impact northern Nevada’s economy by upwards of $12 million annually via purchasing and payroll. In addition, HSI-WARC programs save the State of Nevada $4 million annually in state run services costs.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’
In the wake of the 2008 recession, and the resulting societal and economic challenges, many organizations hunkered down to simply survive. HIS-WARC used the time for innovation. “My experience in the business world taught me that when your first instinct is to close in, you actually need to open up to possibilities,” said CEO LaVonne Brooks. She credits much of the new structure to a talented, well-credentialed team of business and program professionals. “We’ve reshaped our vision and mission, and are moving toward them through our collective team efforts.”
A traditional facility-based model was downsized in favor of a model that incorporates evidence-based practices and community integration. “We want to deliver quantifiable results by way of skill development and engagement,” Brooks pointed out. Using such evidence-based practices such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Precision Teaching, puts the learner in the driver’s seat of the learning process where they belong.”
One key member of Brooks’ team is COO Melany Denny, a driving force behind the organization’s revised model and objectives. “What I brought to the table was helping us get integrated, community-based programs,” Denny said. “There’s dignity in letting people with disabilities make choices, even if there’s risk involved. For people to live happy, healthy lives, we have to get them into the community, and what that looks like today is different from what we used to think.”
“UNR’s Behavioral Analysis program, Sierra Regional Center and the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation have done a super job in guiding us to appropriate ways to meet our goals,” she said. “Working with our state funding partners to create policies that work for the community promotes better stewardship of tax dollars and gets resources to the people who most need them.” That, she indicated, will free up dollars, which can be moved to places where the organization can get the most bang for the buck. “Some people are always going to need that safety net, which we need to have, but if you target your resources, you can move more people off the system.”
HSI-WARC’s business model also evolved to include a Fund Development department of one: Jimmy Breslin. “He’s a beloved community leader and we’re proud to have him on the team,” she enthused. HSI-WARC historically strives to pay its own way. But, since the rate set by the state legislature has not increased significantly in more than 10 years and costs of services have increased year-over-year, HSI-WARC now needs more of the community’s support.
“We often see change as the thing you want other people to do. We had to stop and change in order to do things even better,” Brooks added. “You want things to go on forever the way they are, but ultimately that’s not fair to the employees or the business itself. It’s hard to reinvent yourself, but with finite resources, you often have to stop doing one thing to start doing something else.”
One of those hard decisions is the closing of WARC’s Reno thrift store on Sutro Street. It has been part of the community in some form since 1953 and is set to close at the end of January 2016. “It’s been the longest serving organization of its kind in Nevada,” Brooks reflected. “The recession caused a lot of people to get into the retail-resale business. We found ourselves competing with national brands for retail customers. That, coupled with what constitutes salable product, has changed, along with the cost of leasing and doing business as a nonprofit.
That the Sutro store no longer penciled out wasn’t the only factor that weighed into the decision. “Retail thrift used to be the end game in terms of employment for people with disabilities,” Brooks said. “When we look to the future, we know that people with disabilities can be gainfully employed in preferred work environments anywhere and everywhere, and we want to help them get there.”
Waiting in the wings are other new business ventures already in various stages of development. HSI-WARC is also aiming for more regional and national exposure for its slate of learning systems, which the organization is planning to develop and market.
Even as it plans its future, HSI-WARC embraces its history. “We want to honor the past and the people who have gone before us,” Brooks said. “We’re grateful to all those who have contributed to this amazing transformation.” As kismet would have it, one of HSI-WARC’s past slogans, “Expanding abilities, Meeting challenges,” resonates with its new paradigm. HSI-WARC uses evidence-based practices to expand the abilities of people with disabilities with documented results, and meets the challenges of its mission by creating learning systems that deliver knowledge, skills, meaning and purpose to the lives of the people they serve.
For more information and to schedule a tour, call 775-829-7400 or visit www.hsireno.org.