Hunkered over a sewing machine at her workstation in a small factory off of Martin Avenue, Sue Wilson pieces together an average of 250 American Flags per day — flags that workers for the Rohnert Park-based North Bay Industries sew for its primary client, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The flags are for one thing: to drape over coffins and presented to families at the services of former military service members.
Wilson is one of 200 employees of North Bay Industries who work in and around Rohnert Park, a nonprofit that employs people with developmental disabilities. It's a job that gives people with disabilities, like Wilson, a chance to live more independent lives.
Besides flag-making, the nonprofit also hires people to perform tasks such as janitorial and food services for other organizations around Sonoma County, including the Coast Guard station at Two Rock, near Tomales.
Wilson, who often brags that she makes a lot of money and loves a good game of Bingo, started with NBI when she was 22, sewing shirts. At 34, Wilson lives with her foster mother and she takes pride in her job, she said.
In addition to providing jobs, NBI offers other educational services, such as gardening.
Santa Rosa resident Tim Steward, a 27-year-old alumni of Montgomery High School and also an employee of NBI, spends his days gardening across the street from the Martin Avenue facility. NBI also manages a subsidized housing complex for about 30 of its clients located off the Rohnert Park Expressway near Target.
Funding for programs like NBI, that help the developmentally disabled, are on the chopping block at the state and the federal level. Local officials are worried about what may have to be eliminated in the budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Concern over the budget is such that both NBI Executive Director Elizabeth Sutton and Elizabeth Clary, executive director of Old Adobe Development Services (OADS) made a joint appearance in front of the Rohnert Park City Council in late February asking for a letter of support about the value of their programs.
Sutton called the projected numbers in the Brown Administration’s budget the worst that she has seen — largely due to proposed cuts in The Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act, a state law enacted in 1977 that entitles every person with developmental disabilities access to services and support, to help them live more independent lives.
“California is the only state that has the Lanterman Act,” Sutton said. “Because of the budget cuts we really could be hit. They’re looking at $174 million in cuts — it was up to two hundred and twenty-something. They’ve whittled it down, but that’s still a seven or eight percent cut.”
State cuts could also mean cuts from federal dollars since the funds are often matched on the federal level, Sutton said. The difficulty right now, she added, is not knowing where the cuts are going to be from.
“It’s going to hit the developmental services here in the state of California and it could be in any of eight different vendor codes,” Sutton said. “It could be in transportation, day programs like across the street could be one, supported employment, which is here and out at Two Rock could be one. Or they could do it across the board: seven percent or eight percent. So we are waiting to hear what is going to happen next.”
Clary expressed her gratitude to the City Council for its support of OADS, which contracts with the city for its landscape maintenance and litter abatement services.
“We want to make sure that this community is aware of the magnitude of these cuts and also on the impact on the community if these cuts go through,” Clary said. “The impact is not just on our services, our staff — but it’s on the people that we serve. And if people like us and programs like ours are not here to serve the people that we serve, the community will have that responsibility.
“You could equate it with what happened with Mental Health [services] in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Clary said. “When that system shut down the community had to absorb the responsibility of supporting people with mental illness — and in a lot of instances that has not been a good fit. People with developmental disabilities are as, if not more, vulnerable than that population.