Funding and Leadership Changes are Ahead for the Local Nonprofit

In an unassuming warehouse and office space in northwest Visalia, the staff and students-in-training of ABLE Industries complete a mind-boggling amount of work. From scanning important documents to assembling irrigation emitters, and from packaging gourmet mail-order meal boxes to making tooth powder, the nonprofit ABLE Industries is a clearinghouse of products that the business world consumes every day.

The 68 employees of ABLE Industries work together with more than 200 individuals with developmental disabilities from throughout Tulare County to fill a void in commerce.

Executive Director Wende Ayers believes that their actions not only assist in the growth of local and national businesses, but provide training and job placement to a segment of the community that yearns to contribute to society.

“They are part of our community,” Ayers said of the adults who take part in ABLE Industries’ supported work programs. “When businesses reach out to us, it is a mutual gain for both. We can help them, and they can help us.”

ABLE Industries began in 1962 in Tulare as the Tulare County Training Center for the Handicapped, with a volunteer staff and a client population of less than 20. Ayers has been at the helm since 1996. Using her creative blend of teaching,

accounting, budgeting and networking skills, Ayers has expanded ABLE Industries’ capabilities — and profits — in unique ways, creating opportunities for both the business world and the disabled population of Tulare County.

The next time that you purchase a bottle of Tulare-based Rosa Bros. milk, know that ABLE Industries’ clients helped the company in its early days; Rosa Bros. still employs two individuals from that initial connection. Local entrepreneurs have launched their products to QVC, the home shopping network, with assembly help from ABLE trainees. Sushi, tamale and ravioli meal kits from a Washingtonstate-based entrepreneur make their way to the glossy pages of Williams-Sonoma catalogs courtesy of the packing expertise of ABLE trainees.

A tour of ABLE’s facility reveals an impressive operation that runs nearly 24 hours a day. One constant task is the packing of personal care kits for prisons. Toothbrushes, flossers, bottles of shampoo and a specially designed razor that minimizes risk to correctional officers are placed into petite plastic bags and shipped across the country.

The facility is also one of the only sites in the country to produce tooth powder. When Arm & Hammer ceased production of its product, Ayers called the company, requested the recipe and filled a void in the dental world. Now ABLE Industries and its trainees produce, package and ship hundreds of pounds of the white, minty powder all over the country. Tooth powder, while providing cavity protection to inmates, is also a safer option than a tube of toothpaste for prison guards at high-security facilities, Ayers said.

Trainees also contribute to the public in tangible ways. Ayers quickly lists the jobs that keep Visalia sparkling: cleaning of the downtown transit center and the downtown corridor, ridding the area of trash and maintenance of the city’s vast public park system, including Riverway Sports Park.

ABLE Industries assists with the regular “Dump On Us” days sponsored by the City of Visalia, and shreds thousands of pounds of paper records. Trainees also provide year-round maintenance of the Chester H. Warlow Rest Area on Highway 99 north of Traver.

Other trainees work in warehouses that abound in nearby industrial areas in Visalia and Dinuba: Ashley Furniture, Best Buy and Kawneer, among others.

All these jobs help increase the amount of unrestricted funds in ABLE Industries’ $6 million annual budget, allowing for growth, stability for its employees and future opportunities for trainees. Fifty-four percent of its budget is funded by the government, a number that continues to drop, while Ayers is charged with finding the rest. She admits that this task sometimes prevents her from getting a good night’s sleep.

All job training takes place at ABLE Industries’ 8,500-square-foot headquarters on Goshen Avenue, while personal life skills are taught at another, smaller site in east Visalia. Ayers said she is constantly looking for new job coaches, employment that is part-time to full-time.

Change is on the horizon for ABLE Industries in several ways. Ayers is planning to retire in December after a total of 26 years on the job. (She spent the first four years as the organization’s controller.) The board of directors has launched a search for her replacement, with the goal of having that person in place by October. The candidate must possess knowledge and certification in adult education, special education and administration.

Typical of a partially government funded organization, funding streams are ever-changing. Ayers is in the midst of setting a path for ABLE Industries that will continue long after her retirement.

In addition, a new plan from the California Department of Rehabilitation and California Department of Developmental Services stipulates that by 2022, ABLE Industries and other similar California organizations must transition from work-training to work-placement only. This means that the opportunities that benefit both the disabled population of Tulare County and local and national businesses are at risk. For example, packing of those gourmet meal kits would be eliminated under this new plan. Meetings with accountants and attorneys are underway to determine how ABLE Industries will meet this deadline.

Ayers, whose enthusiasm for her work is undeniable, takes the challenges in stride.

“I am trying to pave the way for the future,” she said. “I feel very loyal to this population. I don’t want to leave them hanging.”