LAFAYETTE -- John Kenny has only participated in half of the remarkable 50-year history of Futures Explored, Inc., but the Lafayette nonprofit corporation has changed his life 100 percent.
Dedicated to supporting adults with disabilities by providing life skills and work-related training that enables them to be integral citizens in their local communities, Futures Explored is celebrating its half-centennial with a public event at Temple Isaiah, at 945 Risa Road in Lafayette, on Sunday, June 1 from 3 to 6 p.m.
But it doesn't take a party to demonstrate the impact of the good work begun by founding director Helen Young, in early 1964. A chat with Kenny, who came to the organization in 1989, leaves indisputable evidence that knocking down social barriers is a noble endeavor.
"I work in the deli and I'm in charge of the loads in the morning," the 57-year-old says of his job as a stockperson at the Lafayette Safeway. "I unload different goods each day, rotate the back stock and check the dates -- that's the critical part."
Kenny has a long work history -- training at Futures Explored's consignment store, Nifty Thrifty, before spending 17 years at Bill's Drugs (later to become Longs Drugs). After seven years at Safeway, he says, "I like to work. I like money, don't we all?"
He's also a veteran of societal prejudice, and recalls a shopper in a grocery store once telling his mother, "Your son should be locked up in a Napa mental institution." Kenny, who has mild cognitive disabilities, chooses not to be angry, saying, "I'm not the one with the problem. People who say those things are the ones with the problem."
Kenny's high school in Concord didn't have special education classes until he was a senior, about to graduate. He wonders whether he'd have gone to college if today's awareness had informed yesterday's curriculum. But he doesn't wonder about Futures Explored, which has brought him stability and undeniable empowerment--and Kimberley Brink.
"I knew her from Special Olympics," he says, "I've done golf, basketball, softball, swimming--just about every sport there is." Talking about sports brings a smile to his face, as does the thought of June 29, 2008, when he and Brink exchanged words of commitment in a spiritual celebration. "We laugh all the time and there's never a dull moment," Kenny says.
Kenny's sense of purpose is grounded in his family's longtime support, his job and volunteer work he has done for Special Olympics and for holiday food drives to help stock area food banks. Executive Director Will Sanford said the multifaceted agency shapes its programs to provide participants with simultaneous training and employment.
"It's a business model," he said. "Historically, when people lost their jobs during recessions, we could employ them during those periods. We wanted people to have the satisfaction of a paycheck and have a real world teaching point."
Futures Explored's director since 2001, Sanford is proud of the agency's Nifty Thrifty, a consignment thrift store begun in 1975, and the Huckleberry Café-to-go, a catering kitchen operated under staff supervision. The impact of garden projects in Antioch, Livermore and Brentwood, along with Nifty E-Waste centers in several East Bay cities, have helped communities to operate sustainably, but have also led to increased acceptance of the Futures Explored workforce. By attending committee meetings in Sacramento, a consumer action program, ALIVE, is putting a face on issues state legislators consider that relate to adults with disabilities.
"We've been able to demonstrate our people's ability to contribute," Sanfordsaid. "Legislators change their minds: it's gone from a sympathy vote to thinking our people have value."
Sanford said Joey Travolta's Practical Film and Media Workshops in Livermore and Sacramento have had a "huge positive impact." The visual medium of film allows the 16 current students in Livermore to produce fully edited short film projects and learn marketable writing and production skills. The surge in adults with disabilities over age 50 -- both due to better medical care and attributable to the booming population being diagnosed in the autism spectrum -- is finding employment and functional social opportunities in the film industry's technical, but highly interactive, environment.
Sanford said the 50th anniversary prompts him to look forward. Anticipating an aging population, who now want to go to college, work into their 80s and enjoy a healthy retirement, he says the vision stays the same.
"We're making sure our folks are seen -- and act -- as valuable participants in their communities."