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How One Company Developed Into a Life Saver

December 1, 2005 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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Busy packing kiddush cups for sale at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (back frow, from left) are Kathy Alcom, DEC facility director; Rita Poley, director, Temple Judea Museum at K.I.; and Craig Lauer, facility production director; (seated) Neil Finkle (left); and Arthur Saft of DEC. Photo by Joanna Lightner

There are those who put little stock in miracles, but the good people who operate Developmental Enterprises Corporation, with administrative headquarters in Norristown, not only place great faith in them, they know it takes a miracle each and every day to enable the organization to proceed with its enormously challenging but life-affirming, life-changing work - and especially to succeed at it.

DEC was founded in 1971 by a group of parents of developmentally disabled children to meet the complex needs of individuals with multiple disabilities and severe mental retardation, according to Bud Kohn, one of the parents who founded it and an immediate past president of its board of directors. Today, DEC ranks as the largest provider of vocational and habilitation services for developmentally and/or physically disabled individuals in the Greater Philadelphia area.

"When we first began this 34 years ago, there were absolutely no services for people with disabilities and the mentally retarded," according to Kohn. "They were either kept at home or institutionalized in places like Pennhurst (the notorious Pennsylvania institution for the developmentally disabled that was ordered closed by the courts in 1987) because other people, including society at large, were ashamed of them.

"This was the attitude of the general population and even of families in 1971 - and, in fact, long before that time," explains Kohn.

"People didn't understand the difference between mental retardation, which is life-long, and mental-health problems, which can be improved and also cured. Today, I feel there is far greater understanding and acceptance of these people who have very special and specific needs."

Among them is Kohn's 47-year-old son Rob, who is mentally retarded, but, in many ways, the same as others. He's a big sports fan, for example (Penn State is one of his favorite teams), and enjoys the freedom that living on his own affords. Rob resides in one of DEC's three fully-supervised community houses.

He works in the training center at DEC's Norristown base, and as such, is part of the DEC family.

"Rob has made good friends through DEC, and because of that he has the support and acceptance of a peer group, which is so important. Naturally, as a parent, I'm happy he has these things," says Kohn.

It is the organization's stated belief that the individuals it serves have a right to an "everyday life," just like everyone else - a life in which they make their own decisions, have friends and social interaction, and get to contribute to society.

DEC has come a long way since its inception, and has done much to help change people's attitudes in its little corner of the world. The not-for-profit organization tailors case-management plans to make them appropriate for each individual it serves, as it and its staff of 150 caregivers focus on vocational training, daily living skills, employment services, residential housing, and therapeutic and enrichment programs at training centers in North Penn, Hatfield, Pottstown, Willow Grove and Center Point, in addition to Norristown.

In all, there are 550 men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 84, enrolled at DEC, including at its training centers, where they could be trained and retrained either for years, or for as long as it takes to meet their work-related and other needs.

While DEC's primary focus is assisting residents of Montgomery County, residents from surrounding areas - including Philadelphia, Chester and Delaware counties - are also served, according to Susan Golec, DEC's executive director. Funding comes from the State of Pennsylvania and counties with people in DEC's care, she adds.

One of the organization's major concerns is its senior population, some of whom now have dementia, as well as physical ailments brought on by aging, says Kohn. To assist them now and later, he continues, new programs - such as bringing seniors together so they can socialize and form friendships with people their own age - have been introduced. And, as part of that effort, special therapies that include caring for pets, are now in place.

"DEC provides peace of mind," says Robyn Lotman Goldberg, a member of DEC's board of directors. Her brother Stevie, 56, like Rob Kohn, works at DEC's Norristown training center. "Stevie has such a solid place here, and because of it and his place in the life of our immediate family - he is included in everything we do - he has the best of both worlds," she says.

Stevie emerged mentally retarded after a 30-day coma, Goldberg says, into which he had lapsed as a newborn.

Employment for the individuals it serves is a key DEC goal, achieved especially through its Custom Contract Packaging and Assembly Services. In this successful outsourcing program - in great demand by employers - DEC's workers are trained to perform a number of tasks that can include assembly by hand, sorting, shrink-wrapping, bottle- and tube-filling, and envelope-stuffing.

One company that has worked with DEC since the mid 1980s is JusTins, Ltd., of Fort Washington, a manufacturer of custom decorative canisters, wooden boxes and other promotional packaging.

"Our workforce is highly skilled and adaptive," explains Golec, "and they take great pride in their work. And because they have work, for which they earn a salary, which they receive every two weeks, they have a greater sense of self-worth and independence. It really is a situation in which everyone wins."

When it comes to giving back, the clients at DEC know the true meaning of that, insists Goldberg: "They give us so much back, show us so much joy and thanks, and they teach us what unconditional love is all about."

For more information, call 610-277-3122.

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