Helping Those With Disabilities reach for a better life

Emily Kuhn, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Members at work at Reach Inc.
Members at work at Reach Inc.

The first thing I noticed about Jesse was his smile. It was friendly, outgoing, and sincere, and it was offered to me – along with his hand to shake and an enthusiastic, “Hi! I’m Jesse!” – the moment I entered Regional Enterprises for Adults and Children, Inc. (REACH), an Eau Claire-based nonprofit organization that helps adults and children with disabilities develop a variety of life, employment, and social skills to aid their integration into the community.

“Any time I hear of someone who wants to stop programs like this or who thinks members could just be sitting at home, I want to invite them to come here and tour. It takes just five minutes to see the value of this type of program.” – Adrian Klenz, REACH executive director

Jesse has been participating in REACH’s Adult Pre-Vocational and Life Skills Program since 2004. REACH Program Director Anne Woolever describes Jesse as a social butterfly who loves meeting new people. After meeting him myself, I was not surprised at this description. Jesse’s excitement about greeting a new face was touching, and the more participants I encountered, the more smiles I saw.

REACH Executive Director Adrian Klenz says that experience is exactly why the agency enjoys opening its doors to tours and questions from members of the public who wish to learn what they do.

“The perspective you’ll get after spending time with our members will change your heart about programs like this,” said Klenz. “People want to shake your hand, give hugs… you can see how happy they are. Any time I hear of someone who wants to stop programs like this or who thinks members could just be sitting at home, I want to invite them to come here and tour. It takes just five minutes to see the value of this type of program.”

Jesse is one of 130 individuals currently being served by REACH, many of whom have been participating for more than 20 years. Members range in age from 18 to 70, and have a variety of needs, including traumatic brain injuries, developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. To help ensure REACH can meet the needs of everyone and not turn anyone away – a unique practice that sets it apart from similar organizations – REACH employs six certified nursing assistants at all times.

Individuals come to REACH for a variety of reasons, from the loss of a job to a desire for productive, educational daytime activities. Participants in the pre-vocational program focus mainly on soft job skills like interviewing, shaking hands, eye contact, etc.

“Right now, the philosophy at the federal level in Wisconsin is that everyone, no matter what, can get a job in the community at a competitive wage,” said Woolever, who has been with REACH for 14 years. “Everyone here who does our pre-vocational services has a goal of, at some point in the future, obtaining employment. We accept everyone. Anyone who wants to work and wants to participate is able to.”

REACH began in a church basement in 1963, after local parents saw the need for additional programming for their adult children with disabilities. Since then, the organization has grown to encompass a variety of programs and services for such individuals. In addition to the pre-vocational and life skills program, REACH offers Hand In Hand Early Childhood Education, which serves children with and without disabilities ages six weeks to 12 years old; Supported Employment Services, a job-placement program that helps individuals obtain competitive community jobs; the Menomonie Adult Day Program, which provides day programs for disabled adults in Menomonie; Helen’s House, which provides day programs for retirement-age adults with disabilities; and Selma House, which provides day programs for adults with disabilities who are under retirement age.

A major focus of REACH programs is community involvement. Members volunteer at Feed My People Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, Hope Gospel Mission and more. REACH also focuses on preparing those who want to work for employment, giving pre-vocational program participants opportunities to focus on those soft job skills.

Since its inception in 1963, REACH has grown to serve almost 1,000 families and clients every year. Unfortunately, funding for future programs is uncertain. REACH is primarily funded through managed-care organizations (MCOs) which contract with state Medicaid agencies to provide a variety of health services, and contract work, which enables REACH to provide individualized work opportunities for those who desire them. For example, REACH has a long-standing contract with Menards to package the gifts sent by the company to its employees every holiday, and those who participate are paid based on their abilities.

Last year, Gov. Scott Walker’s budget included changes by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to Family Care, the Medicaid program under which services like REACH are largely funded. The changes would have enabled the state to contract with private insurance companies instead of working with MCOs. However, those proposed changes were withdrawn in June.

“It is a temporary reprieve, yet we still are under the cloud of what might happen at the federal level,” Klenz said. “We are still uncertain about our funding future.”

“Nationally, there’s been a push to get rid of programs like REACH, but the question is, where would (participants) go?” he continued. “Our fear is that it would then fall on parents or guardians, and many of these participants would end up sitting at home. Now, they can come to a place like this during the day, earn some money, socialize, and get out into the community.”

REACH’s headquarters is at 2205 Heimstead Road, and its phone number is (715) 552-2763. For more information about REACH – including its annual fundraiser, which is planned for this fall and will include dinner, a silent auction, and entertainment by members – visit reach-inc.org website or find them on Facebook at facebook.com/reachincwi/.

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