Disabled workers fulfill needs of outdoor companies

For the last four years, Horny Toad has put up some impressive numbers. Ninety-eight percent of its deliveries have reached customers on time, and its return rate was less than half a percent.
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For the last four years, Horny Toad has put up some impressive numbers. Ninety-eight percent of its deliveries have reached customers on time, and its return rate was less than half a percent.

Those are eye-opening statistics -- especially when you consider that Horny Toad's fulfillment house includes a staff of 24 mentally disabled adults.

"Our quality control has never been better, and you won't find a better group of employees," Gordon Seabury, owner of Horny Toad, told SNEWS®. "In fact, when we have delays, it's usually something on the manufacturing floor, not in fulfillment."

Since 1999, Horny Toad's fulfillment has been done by Planet Access Co., a division of the non-profit organization Search Development Center in Waukegan, Ill. The 30-year-old Search Development Center provides housing, vocational training and other support to 350 adults with developmental disabilities.

About two dozen of Search's mentally retarded clients work for Planet Access, a 15,000-square-foot fulfillment facility. These jobs serve as vocational training that will eventually allow disabled workers to take permanent jobs in their community.

"We're breaking down barriers between disabled individuals and their community," said John Lipscomb, executive director of Search Development Center. "We're breaking down their dependencies on others in making decisions. Having a job, being empowered and exercising choices helps them determine what they're going to do with their lives."

Seabury said Search clients are responsible for jobs such as picking, packing and tagging products to be shipped. Working five hours a day, five days a week, workers receive a market wage from Horny Toad. And, profits from Planet Access will be used to provide disabled adults with access to outdoor activities.

"This might include rafting trips and camping trips. We'll follow a model like Big City Mountaineers," said Seabury. "Maybe half of the 350 clients would be able to do significant activity in the outdoors. We want to get them out of their normal world, which can be pretty limited."

While the program enriches the lives of disabled adults, Horny Toads also benefits from this symbiotic relationship -- a relationship that actually began when Horny Toad launched in 1996.

"We wanted to incorporate a socially responsible mission into the business from the get-go," Seabury said.

As Horny Toad got off the ground, it partnered with Search Developmental Center, allowing disabled adults to produce a camping pillow made of recycled fabrics.

"We had several goals," Seabury said. "We wanted to provide meaningful work and training for clients of Search; to recycle our excess fabrics; create awareness that if you give these individuals an opportunity they can be productive members of society; and use profits of the program to provide clients with access to outdoor activities."

The pillow was a great success, but Horny Toad and Search realized that portions of the manufacturing process were too difficult for some workers. However, they recognized that the disabled adults preformed well on fulfillment tasks, and concluded that Search could create a great packaging and assembly organization.

Forming a unique relationship, Horny Toad and Search created Planet Access. "It's very rare to see a for-profit corporation developing a business venture with a non-profit," said Seabury.

However rare, this business model is certainly beneficial. Seabury likes the fact that Planet Access is 20 percent less expensive than comparable fulfillment facilities. And, by outsourcing fulfillment, Seabury said he's given Horny Toad the maximum flexibility to grow.

One day, this relationship may not be so rare. "In the non-profit world there's a movement called social entrepreneurship," said Lipscomb. "Non-profit agencies are trying to find a fit in the business world. They are trying to fit the services they provide and needs of their people with earned income streams to support their programs."

Lipscomb said that Medicaid finances most Search programs. But Medicaid does not fund leisure activities. The partnership with Horny Toad creates a revenue stream that will fund outdoor recreation.

While Horny Toad represents 95 percent of Planet Access business, the fulfillment house has begun to work with other outdoor companies, including CMG Equipment and En-R-G Foods.

"We're talking with three or four others," said Lipscomb. "We would like to focus on six to eight companies, and we're looking for companies that will eventually gross $1 million to $5 million."

For Horny Toad, Seabury said his next goal is to make consumers more aware that developmentally disabled workers are an untapped resource. "We're working to produce a premium product -- a lightning rod for promotion and exposure. The proceeds of this product would go back into the program," said Seabury.

He wants to overcome the misconception that the developmentally disabled are not capable of high-quality work. Seabury admits that even he was concerned initially that quality control would suffer with Planet Access. But he discovered just the opposite, noting, "Our deliveries and quality have been incredible."

And beyond the statistics lies a greater benefit. "The most important aspect is that Search provides self respect," he said. "Search tries very hard to give these people meaningful life experiences."

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