By GENESIS LARA
Arizona Sonora News
Desert Survivors looks like any other nursery in Tucson – a section with potted plants and cactuses for sale out front, greenhouses filled with trees and flowering bushes out back. But there is more to Desert Survivors than that.
Founded in 1981, Desert Survivors is a non-profit organization where the sales of plants and trees and potting soil help support the nursery’s real ambition, which is to provide jobs and work opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities, or people with longterm mental or physical impairments including autism, serious learning disorders or Down’s Syndrome.
Richard Bechtold, executive director of Desert Survivors, said the program was created by Joseph Patterson, a psychologist who was a University of Arizona student when he first came up with the idea of building a program that could provide developmentally disabled people with work that gave them a sense of dignity and purpose.
“You don’t build on a disability,” said Bechtold. “You can only build of what people can do.”
More than 40 employees with disabilities of some sort work at the nursery, which is on Starr Pass Boulevard on Tucson’s west side. Each is assigned to a crew with a mentor who guides them through their jobs and helps them manage their behaviors. Together, Bechtold said, the mentors and employees have learned how to engineer an environment in which everyone can succeed at every level.
Desert Survivors depends on state grants to support the hiring on the mentors, but most of the program’s budget comes from income received through the nursery, which includes plant sales, membership fees and tax deductible donations.
While some employees have graduated to jobs in the competitive marketplace outside – one was just hired as a worker at a nearby nursery – others stay at Desert Survivors for as long as they possibly can.
A man named Steve started working at Desert Survivors when it was launched 35 years ago, where his job was to help move direct around. While recently on the job, he had a heart attack and passed away. His wheelbarrow and shovel still stand where he left them when he collapsed, as a memorial.
“It sounds sad, but it’s a dignified way to go,” said Bechtold.
Bechtold said the mentors adjust the special employees’ work schedules as they grow older and tired. He stressed that what matters is to keep them active and around other people, even if they do not get much work done around the nursery.
“We don’t want them sitting in a recliner watching television,” Bechtold said. “They’re too smart to watch TV.”
Karen Wilson, director of the special abilities employment program at the nursery and mother of one of the special employees, agreed with Bechtold.
Wilson’s son was diagnosed with autism when he was about four years old. He is now 34, and Wilson said that Desert Survivors has given him a responsibility that is reflected at home. She said her son now insists on making coffee and tea for them, each morning.
“Having this job means so much to him, because he has this sense of importance,” said Wilson. “It makes him feel like he’s part of the world.”
Although the special employees have learned plenty from their mentors and coworkers at Desert Survivors, the mentors said they have also learned a great deal too.
David Garcia, the program manager at Desert Survivors and a mentor to a work crew for five years, said he is thankful for what his employees have taught him.
“It has helped me become a better parent,” said Garcia, who is the father of two girls with developmental disabilities. “Understanding behaviors, finding out what works. I implement that at home and I can see a progress in my daughters and myself.”
Despite the successes the program has made, Bechtold said his biggest frustration is that there is no person at the state level focusing on how to share the lessons they have learned at Desert Survivors. He said there needs to be more emphasis on programs that work with individuals with developmental disabilities, and to take advantage of their potential.
Bechthold said some of the employees have remarkable special skills. One man, Billy, has an ability to mentally calculate calendar dates. Give Billy a birth date and year, and he can calculate what day of the week the birth was.
Another employee, Mike, likes to change his persona periodically, coming to work in different outfits. Bechtold explained that Mike is currently going through a cowboy phase, but he is thinking about switching over to a weight-lifter late this year.
“But he’s a hell of a worker in any genre,” Bechtold said jokingly.