Haven Industries: Where Work is a Joy

October, 2020 – Maus, 33, adores her job at The Haven. Five days a week, she and her team cook lunch for the Selby Preschool on campus. They make pizza. Spaghetti. Chicken cacciatore. “We do a lot of taco days,” she says. Her specialty? Meatloaf. “I feel like I’m making it with love.”

Founded in 1954 as the Sunshine Day School for kids with special needs, The Haven has grown into a multidimensional nonprofit that serves 800 individuals with disabilities every month. About half have Down Syndrome; the rest live with a variety of disorders, from cerebral palsy to developmental delays. Autism is an increasingly common secondary as well as primary diagnosis.

In addition to preparing about 50 youngsters for elementary school, The Haven enrolls another 50 students ages 14-22 at its private Haven Academy. For adults, the organization runs six group homes on its 32-acre campus in north Sarasota, housing 48 residents. On weekdays they are joined by roughly 150 commuters for Adult Day Training—which for most clients, like Megan, includes several hours on the clock at work.

This emphasis on employment distinguishes The Haven. When Brad Jones became CEO almost five years ago, he led a shift in focus from a “day-care type environment” to a workplace. After years on staff in the residential program, Jones knew clients craved both a social experience and a sense of purpose.

The Haven envisioned people with disabilities learning job skills on campus while earning a paycheck. The ultimate goal was launching those who proved capable into full- or part-time positions out in the community. Jones was hunting for real work, not make-work. He knew The Haven’s clients loved routine and excelled at repetitive tasks. “They’re sticklers for quality,” he says. “And they won’t stop until the job’s done and they have exactly the number that they need.”

So, he and The Haven’s leadership went looking for companies willing to partner. Jones talked up the win-win relationship. With no HR hassles, employers can contract out tasks like assembling and packaging that other workers find tedious—while simultaneously doing a good turn for a marginalized population. Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities funds the infrastructure for Adult Day Training, including staff instructors. So when the nonprofit signs a contract with companies, all the income goes into worker pay. The rate varies depending on the number of steps involved in a job, but now every employed client earns at least minimum wage.

“Sun Hydraulics was one of the first employers we landed,” says Jones. “That was really the key. Some of the work we complete for Sun Hydraulics actually goes into space. NASA uses it. It’s stuff that needs to be right.” Sun Hydraulics’ trust and confidence in The Haven opened doors. “Once we were able to show that track record, then more and more companies came to us,” says Jones. “It just bloomed from there.”

Bealls department store also signed on, hiring The Haven’s clients to sort and bundle hangers. Commercial Refrigerator Door Company has contracted for workers to build hinges and refrigerator locks. Adult Day Training now encompasses everything from lawn care and janitorial services to weaving and a culinary arts program that staffs an on-campus bakery and prepares school meals.

“Clients are learning how to learn a skill,” says Becky Forest, who came on two years ago as director of Haven Industries. “They’re learning how to follow directions, how to work in a group setting, not just be home with mom and dad. Those simple things we take for granted, like taking turns. Please, thank you, excuse me.”

Adult Day Training is anything but a sweatshop. Each client makes an individual plan, choosing how many (if any) days to work. Between breaks for snack, lunch, and recreation, the average worker logs about three hours per day. Forest points out that the pace and the flexibility suit clients with disabilities, who also benefit from an instructor’s support.