VOC: Asheboro’s Best-Kept Secret

“The people that come each day are proud of their day program and of what they’re doing with their life,” said Schoolcraft, VOC’s vocational director. “I feel like we are a community resource. I want the community to know we have a service to offer Asheboro.”

Sometimes the brick building at 214 N. Elm St. in Asheboro is filled with people and activity. Sometimes it’s almost empty, when program participants are out and about, working, learning or volunteering.

A few of the 27 men and women in the program, who range in age from twenty something to 60—have jobs. Several work at city restaurants and one at a day-care center. A few others are willing and able to hold down a job in an employer is willing to give them an opportunity.

One young man worked at an area hosiery mill for a couple of years, but lost the job due to cutbacks in the world of textiles; he’s itching to go back to work.

“We’re a great employer, “ Schoolcraft said, “but volunteering’s good, too, and that’s good training.”

Most everyone in the program has volunteered at one time or another.

Some do so regularly—such as delivering Meals-on-Wheels for the Randolph County Senior Adults Association; sorting clothes and food for nonprofit organizations or playing piano for residents at an Asheboro nursing facility.

In March, after eight people were killed in a shooting at a nursing home in Carthage, a group from VOC traveled to the facility by van to deliver flowers.

“We just wanted to show that we care,” Schoolcraft said.

“We’re all about being in the community,” she added. “We want the community to know that we’re here for them. It’s giving back.”
And then there’s the nifty little VOC gift shop called The Grapevine.
Many who are privy to the “secret” of The Grapevine are regular shoppers, dropping in to buy gift baskets or note cards, angels or note pads, big, fancy bows or bubble gum (or chocolate candy) trees. Seven workshop participants earn money by making, or helping put together, the gifts.

The prices are attractive, with gift baskets for under $10 available. A 40-sheet notepad costs only 75 cents. A set of four individually crafted note cards is just $2.

“We make thoughtfulness affordable,” Schoolcraft said.

The program began 28 years ago at the Randolph-Asheboro YMCA. Until 2004, the program operated under the umbrella of Randolph County Mental Health. That association ended when officials began retooling mental health services in the state. Now VOC is part of Monarch, a nonprofit organization that provides services to children and adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems at 100 sites in approximately half of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

An affiliate of The Arc national organization, Monarch operates 13 vocational sites in the state, including VOC in Asheboro.
In days gone by, area industries kept VOC participants supplied with work, such as folding socks for a manufacturer, for which they were paid by the piece. Those jobs began to dwindle around 2000, Schoolcraft said.

Recently, some VOC participants have earned a little money removing stickers pasted inside plastic cones from a textile operation. Some traveled to a Monarch vocational site in Biscoe, in neighboring Montgomery County, which received the original work order from a manufacturer in Raeford. They brought bags full of plastic cones back to Asheboro to work on there. But such work is in very short supply.

The gift shop was established in 2002 to offer program participants a chance to earn money. For example, bubble gun trees sell for $10; workers earn $2.56 for each one they make.

The VOC program teaches skills so that participants can be more independent, from learning about budgeting to safety around the home. One of the first activities every day is exercise, stretching and bending to music. Participants have gotten lessons in sign language and in Spanish.

They take outings to the library, the mall, the bowling alley. They have been to a natural science museum in Greensboro and to the farmer’s market in Asheboro.

The ultimate goal, Schoolcraft said, is to have each VOC participant out in the community working. That goal may not be attainable for all.

About half of the individuals who come to the workshop daily live in group homes; 10 of the 27 qualify for one-on-one workers provided through Randolph Hospital’s Community Alternatives Program (CAP).

Staff members find out what each individual wants and assess the strengths of each.

“We don’t look at the person’s disability,” Schoolcraft said.

“We look at their ability. We really focus on what they want to do. We talk about dreams. We teach them life skills.”

Last year, VOC participants said they wanted to take a trip. So, everybody pooled their energies to sell raffle tickets which financed a jaunt to Hatley Springs, NC. Along the way, they toured a cheese factory, saw a Christmas tree farm and had some good food.

Schoolcraft calls the Knights of Columbus “our knights in shining armor,” because of the fraternal service organization’s long-time monetary support of VOC. Participants recycle aluminum cans to generate money for outings, too.

A recent group discussion centered on the question “What would you like to do?” The answers given by individuals in the program are displayed on a wall. The desires sound like longings that might have come from most any group of adults, anywhere: Travel, take a diabetic class, ride a tractor, win the lottery, have a girlfriend, have a boyfriend, spend more time with family, find a job, play a sport, have a place of my own, be a chef, or go on a trip.

“We try to see what we can do about making some of that happen,” Schoolcraft said. “We have one man who wants to go to a race some day. I want do bad to make that happen.”

Schoolcraft and her co-workers have a dream list of their own.

Topping the list is finding a new home to rent. The neighbors, she said, are nice, but some of the goings-on in the area are troubling. Gas was stolen from the VOC can more than once; the vehicle is no longer parked on the property. Picnic tables have been vandalized. Some have even told Schoolcraft that they are reluctant to visit the gift shop because of the location of the workshop.

Bigger quarters would be good, she said. The current workshop is 3,000 square feet. A place with at least 4,000 square feet would be better, preferably a building with a loading dock, which would make it easier to drop off loads—plastic cones, socks, whatever—and might help generate more production work from area industries.

There are simpler to fill wishes also: a newspaper subscription so they can talk about current events; a greenhouse, so they can plant and watch things grow.

But the site of the VOC program is not as important them to make life more meaningful” Schoolcraft said. “They’re here to become better citizens. Out folks are happy. We feel the warmth. Everybody has a great smile. We’re more alike than we are different.”

Article first appeared in The Courier-Tribune
Sunday, July 5, 2009
By Staff Writer Chip Womick