St. Charles County’s Boone Center Inc. helps adults with disabilities find belonging, self-esteem

Published: Oct. 27, 2022 at 6:59 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The majority of adults with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed, but a St. Charles County company is doing its part to give people a welcoming environment to grow.

According to the National Organization on Disability, only 21 percent of Americans with disabilities over the age of 16 are working or actively looking for work, compared to 67 percent of Americans without disabilities.

“Boone Center provides an employment continuum so we try to match the person with the right spot,” said Troy Compardo, C.E.O. of Boone Center Inc. “For some, that means within our facility in our packaging operation getting some basic life skills training and technical training in the job setting.”

BCI was founded in 1959 in St. Charles. In 1990 it began contract packaging and in 1996 it moved to its current facility in St. Peters.

“They want to be out of their mom and dad’s house, they want to be living on their own and going to work just like any of us do,” Compardo said. “Sometimes it just takes them a little bit longer and they need a few more helping hands along the way and that’s what we provide.”

The company employs more than 200 adults with disabilities, the majority of which work on the floor of the packaging plant. Jobs vary from breaking down boxes to packing materials into containers to manning the assembly lines.

“I love working here,” said Donna Wolf. “This is my kind of place right here, buddy!”

Wolf has worked at the packaging facility for nine years after working multiple different jobs in the food industry. After a five-year stint at a hamburger chain, she decided to apply at BCI.

“I like it here better,” she said. “I like all my supervisors and friends.”

Throughout the expansive warehouse, there are no shortages of waves and friendly smiles, as employees enjoy the friendships and support they’ve found working at BCI.

“The staff 100 percent is why I like it here,” said Jackson Arnett, who has worked at the facility for six years. “They’re friendly, everybody is friendly and they know what they’re getting.”

“I think a lot of people have a misconception they maybe had some interactions with an adult with disabilities before and they paint a broad picture across everyone,” said Compardo. “Many of them have unlimited capabilities. With the right coaching and support structure around them, they can be some of your best employees frankly.”

BCI offers employment support teams consisting of psychologists, behavior analysts and social workers to help employees on the job.

In an attempt to build on their success, in 2019 BCI launched its Skills Center, which connects young adults with disabilities to full-time work after graduating from an eight-week course.

The company partners with more than 40 businesses, feeding them employees as needed. The most recent graduating class of students will work at True Manufacturing.

“When you look at folks with disabilities, they’re usually at a disadvantage,” said Todd Streff, executive director of the Skills Center. “There is always a constant need and I think the question is always how capable are they and I think programs like this and a number of others demonstrate that capability.”

The Skills Center has sent more than 100 students into full time jobs at competitive wages since its inception, Streff said. The most recent class graduated four students.

“I kind of had been taking the same type of jobs over and over so I wanted to get some new experiences to help with my resume,” said Paul Douglas, 25, a graduate of the Skills Center.

The course teaches students, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, technical skills in addition to social skills that will help them in future workplace environments. Some students said that support wasn’t always present in previous jobs they’ve had.

“I’ve had some interesting experiences,” said Wynham Reddy, 26, a Skills Center graduate. “Not necessarily where I was disliked but my personality, my quietness, it wasn’t appreciated, it was too boring I guess and maybe my demeanor gave people the wrong idea and rubbed them the wrong way.”

In addition to gainful employment and the chance at upward mobility, graduates of the Skills Center are also eager to work for companies accepting of both their strengths and weaknesses.

“They accept different disabilities and I’m going to be in a place where I’m embraced,” Reddy said. “I’m ready to work.”

Parents of students in the class are excited for what the future holds and said the Skills Center fills a void that exists after young adults with disabilities graduate from high school.

“I feel anybody with a disability wants to be like everyone else,” said Dena Franz, Douglas’ mother. “They had it all through high school, early intervention, but what is out there after you turn 18? So that little stair step of help that’s offered here, it builds their self-esteem, you feel typical and you feel ‘normal.’”

The Skills Center typically enrolls a few classes every quarter, depending on their business partners’ needs. Susan Andrews’ son, Joe, graduated from the Skills Center in August. He now works full time at Cambridge Air Solutions.

“It has provided, really for the first time since leaving high school, the chance to feel like a successful adult,” Andrews said. “I have a job, I earn a paycheck, I get time off and it’s been really excited to see that in him.”

Andrews told News 4 after her son suffered through a couple of false starts, he found his place at the Skills Center.

“As a parent, there’s a level of relief and then excitement because he’s so happy with what he’s doing.”

Critical to the Skills Center model, she said, is the segway into full-time employment with one of BCI’s business partners.

“Without that, I think a lot of people like him just stop trying,” she said. “When they’re still in school, it’s a pretty straight course but it’s when they graduate from high school that all of a sudden there are a lot of unknowns. As a parent, you can hope for the best but it’s also possible to be discouraged when you don’t see that right place for your child.”

To learn more about the Skills Center, click here. Job openings at the BCI packaging plant can be found here.