A Seed-to-Sale Approach at TCRC

by Annie Locke

A new project expands the possibilities for persons with developmental disabilities.

After years of state budget cuts, the board of directors at the Tazewell County Resource Center (TCRC) faced a dilemma. As an organization that provides training and employment opportunities to persons with developmental disabilities, it needed to continue to serve its clients, yet required an influx of revenue to stay afloat. That’s when Jamie Durdel, president and CEO, and the TCRC staff came up with a solution—a service that allows people with disabilities to sell products to local businesses.

They began to train their clients to work in the resource center’s previously unused kitchen, preparing boxed lunches and soup mixes to sell to businesses in the community. At the same time these workers were earning a paycheck, they were also learning important job skills. The commercial kitchen grew quickly, eventually employing more than 40 individuals and leading to the creation of the Taste of TCRC. “It really kind of blew up,” says Durdel. “We did not expect it to be this big.”

The Taste of TCRC is just one of the resource center’s many employment services—from custodial work to personalized job placement—to promote self-sufficiency among individuals with developmental disabilities and impaired eyesight. But it’s also part of a larger effort to provide employment opportunities that integrate TCRC clients into the community.

The Taste of TCRC’s relationships with local businesses and organizations helps ground this effort. For instance, employees juice lemons, peaches, apples and blackberries for JK Williams Distilling’s fruit-based alcohols. The organization also recently signed a deal with Head Start, the federally-funded preschool and family development program, to prepare children’s breakfasts, snacks and boxed lunches. “We, as a nonprofit, are not simply asking for donations,” says Durdel. “We have found a way to partner with businesses in the community to provide a service for them, help them with their business, and also put people with disabilities to work.”

TCRC employees take what Durdel calls a “seed-to-sale” approach, demonstrating the entire food preparation process to clients by walking through each step needed to create the final product. They teach them how to garden and pick fruits or vegetables from the TCRC garden or greenhouse—and then clean, dice and incorporate them into recipes. “We know that we are going to have to spend a lot of time with some [people] and not as much time with others,” Durdel explains. “The goal is to do whatever it takes. We want everyone to be successful and play a role.” Many of the jobs require performing the same steps over and over again—repetition that job coaches find key to enabling the workers to perform tasks.

Durdel foresees a bright future for The Taste of TCRC, noting the organization recently obtained its commercial license. The commercial kitchen makes a variety of products, from dog treats to cinnamon rolls, but prior to obtaining this license, it could only offer these items to private customers. Now it can sell to third-party vendors and retailers, and could even open its own store eventually—a venture that would allow the organization to hire additional staff and help more people.

TCRC has created a cyclical service in which all parties benefit—local businesses, the organization itself, and most importantly, its clients. But the project’s core benefit stems from the kitchen employees’ delight at gaining independence while serving the community. “They enjoy seeing the end product,” says Durdel. “They really enjoy being able to turn three or four bushels of lemons into a bunch of juice. That’s amazing to them.” iBi