Courier News – Sunday, April 8, 2018
“If there wasn’t a sheltered workshop, there
would be a lot of families that wouldn’t know what to do. Help keep these facilities open,” a parent of a sheltered workshop program told U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle at the MARVA consignment store in Russellville.
A couple of years ago, Cotton visited with employees and their families of sheltered workshop programs, or work centers, that are supervised workplaces who serve individuals with disabilities.
Cotton met with people from sheltered workshops throughout the state, including MARVA Inc. of Russellville, Abilities Unlimited Inc. of Hot Springs, ACTION Services Inc. of Morrilton, and work centers in Clarksville and Alma.
They pleaded with the senator to make sure they didn’t lose their jobs, their friends, their livelihood. And he listened.
Cotton met with work center employees and their families at the MARVA consignment store on South Arkansas Avenue. He, his wife, Anna, and father, Len, talked with over 50 people Thursday afternoon.
“I am very honored that you have come together as families and are sharing some of your stories with me today,” he explained. “Since we first got to know each other, I have just been so moved by my time at MARVA, Abilities Unlimited or half a dozen other workshops I have seen.
“There are so many people here in the River Valley who are such strong advocates for all of you and for what MARVA does. They sit on your board, and they contribute their time, their effort, their money. It just goes to show just how strong the base of support you have here. And that goes for all the sheltered workshops all around the state.”
Cotton shared a story of a family who moved away from a community that had a workshop to one that did not, and how hard that was on them. He said it gave you a sense of how deep the connections are in these workshops.
“Unfortunately, not everyone in Washington not always appreciates that,” he pointed out. “There was an effort a couple of years ago to rescind some of the laws that enable the shelter workshops to stay open. When I heard about that, from many folks from around the state, I immediately put a stop to it. I am happy to say that bill was killed two years ago in the Senate and hasn’t even been reintroduced.”
That drew a big round of applause and some standing ovations.
“We also have a new Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta,” Cotton continued. “When he came to visit me last winter and asked for my vote for his confirmation, there are a lot of important issues the department of labor covers, from Wage and Hour Division laws, to retirement planning laws. But the one thing we talked about more than anything else was sheltered workshops and the laws and regulations that apply to all of you that you continue to serve your client workers and serving this community the way you do.
“I don’t think there’s risk right now — like the way there was two years ago with that legislation — but this is something my team and I keep a very close eye on. If there is any risk at all, you can be certain that once again I will step into the breach and make sure that we don’t do anything in Congress or anything in the Department of Labor that undermines the wonderful work you do here at MARVA and sheltered workshops across the state.”
After a singing performance from MARVA employees, Cotton took several statements from employees and family members who thanked the senator for his efforts to keep their work centers open.
“We need something like this in Morrilton,” Rich Moellers said.
“We love it. Don’t shut us down,” one employee said. “Please don’t let them shut it down.”
Mike Meador said his brother, David, is our bumblebee.
“A couple of years ago, you were talking to my brother about sheltered workshops,” Mike told Cotton. “When they talked about shutting them down, you said, ‘We’re going to put that fire out before the wind catches it.’ And you did. Thank you.”
Another parent told the senator she had followed his voting record on Medicaid-related bills that partially fund sheltered workshop programs.
“You’ve voted for bills that cut Medicaid that make programs like this possible,” she said. “There has got to be a way to preserve these programs. Please put your money where your mouth is and vote for bills to protect Medicaid.”
Cotton said he wanted to protect Medicaid funds for the most frail.
One young man from Abilities Unlimited Inc. in Hot Springs pleaded with the senator to protect sheltered workshop programs.
“These are my friends,” he said. “This is my family. This is our home. Please do not take away our home.”
Another young woman cried as she addressed the senator. Her friends told her it was okay and patted her on the back.
“I came here today to protect my job, my home, my family,” she said.
“This gives us a chance to show we’re like a regular person,” another young man said. “We are like everybody else. That’s the point.”
“If you take this away from them, you are taking away their world from them,” a parent explained. “Both the programs in Russellville and Alma have been godsends for us. He always comes home with a smile and can’t wait to go to work the next day to see what the day brings.”
Her son, Jason Edmundson, worked at MARVA and now works at Alma.
“Don’t let it shut down,” he told the senator. “I want to continue to work and make more friends and make money.”
Then it came out he is an expert on Arkansas football games. Cotton asked him what the score was from the Razorbacks bowl game in 1977.
“Orange Bowl,” Jason said. “Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6.”
State Rep. Les Warren, in his first term serving District 25, which includes Hot Springs and Garland County, stressed the importance of having a U.S. senator who supports them and is passionate and will fight for sheltered workshop programs.
“We need to spread the word about what he is doing for us,” added Warren, also a member of the Abilities Unlimited Board of Directors.
“Sometimes, we need a little help. MARVA is that for us,” a parent said. “It’s not the money. It’s having a place to go. She has a lot of friends here.”
“You’re the real blessing for us. Everything you do,” Anna Cotton said, crying.
“They shouldn’t take away all the choices you have through these programs,” Tom Cotton added. “They give a sense of purpose and a chance for meaningful life to our most vulnerable neighbors. I will continue to protect MARVA and organizations like it from any effort to close them down.”