Thursday, September 3, 2009

Michigan woman with autism finds success with her own rag business

From the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan:

Lisa Witte is zipping through old sweatshirts, turning them into rags, like a meat cutter slicing swiftly through hunks of roast beef.

"She loves it," said Lisa's mom, Phyllis Witte, of her deft daughter. "She can produce 100 pounds of rags in three hours -- she's so fast."

It's all part of a day's work at Lisa's Quality Rags, the remarkable -- and profitable -- business owned and operated by the 29-year-old woman with special needs. Diagnosed at age 2 with autism, Witte can't read, write or talk beyond saying, "Hi, I'm Lisa," and sometimes parroting what others say.

"It's amazing she can be a productive member of society," Phyllis Witte said. She and Lisa's father, Teunis, used to think, "'There's so much she can do, yet then again, how will she ever find a real occupation?' God opened all the doors."

Employed since the age of 15 by Goodwill Industries, Lisa Witte had been trained in a number of skills, including her starting task taking clothes out of boxes and putting them on hangers. "Her aide soon realized she could do a lot more than hang clothes," Phyllis Witte said. "Goodwill taught her skill after skill."

By last summer, the young woman was a veteran rag cutter. Drawing on used knit sweatshirts and T-shirts that Goodwill hadn't been able to sell, Lisa Witte would slice the clothing into squares about 12-by-12 inches and produce absorbent rags ideal for heavy-duty industrial spills and equipment cleaning.

It was the perfect match between worker and work, as high-energy Lisa thrived on whipping out 1,000 pounds of rags per month.

When Goodwill's government funding for Lisa Witte's program ended, the Wittes had an idea: Why not set Lisa up with her own rag cutting business?

Goodwill was happy to help their longtime employee. The organization sold three cutting machines to Lisa and her parents and handed over their customer list at no cost. "They really wanted Lisa to succeed," Phyllis Witte said.

"We knew Lisa was a great individual and a hard worker," said Jill Wallace, vice president of community relations for Goodwill Industries. "We provided her with (the machines) at a discounted cost, and we were happy to help her. She's happy, and she's got a job and is contributing to society."

Set up as a microenterprise through Hope Network (which provides Lisa with a "skill builder" aide during her 25-hour work week), Lisa's Quality Rags was born about a year ago. Four thrift stores -- New Life, New to You, Project Hope and Nice Twice -- throw their unusable shirts into a "Lisa's box."

New Life Thrift Store on Division Avenue in Wyoming houses Lisa Witte's operation rent-free in its basement.

Her first customer was her uncle Herm Witte, owner of Witte Lawn Maintenance, who used Lisa's rags to clean grease from his lawn care equipment. Now she has 35 customers, ranging from auto body shops to foam factories, some from the Goodwill customer list and some from word-of-mouth.

"It's a good, green enterprise," said Phyllis, adding they hope to make it even greener. "We'd love to find a business which would use the scraps for insulation or something."

Since the eco-friendly business started turning a profit just a few months after its startup, the Wittes have invested most of the profits back into the operation, buying Lisa an industrial scale to replace the old baby-weighing scale they used before.

The next skill for Lisa: learning to weigh rags in 5-pound increments.

Of course, some profits go directly to the business owner herself.

"She doesn't understand the value of money, but there are things she likes to buy," Phyllis Witte said. "Lisa loves balloons and jewelry, especially earrings. Now she has extra spending money to buy those things."

Lisa is the Wittes' second daughter adopted from Korea (older sister Natasha works as a teacher at Oakdale Christian School). When they filled out the paperwork to adopt her from Holt International Adoption Agency, the Wittes indicated they were not open to parenting a special needs child.

Within a week of bringing their 6-month-old daughter home, however, Phyllis could tell something was wrong with her baby girl. "We had set up one of those baby gates so she couldn't crawl and fall down the stairs," she said. "Almost right away I could see that she was just lying there; she wasn't going anywhere."

As the Byron Center family grew (the Witte children also include 27-year-old Kristina, 25-year-old Nathaniel and 23-year-old Matthew), Lisa Witte grew as well, attending the Wellerwood Program for special needs children, and exhibiting a great capacity for vigorous, hard work.

"God's given everybody an ability," said Phyllis. "Lisa's capable of lots of physical work. Her life has meaning. She has taught our family so much in terms of patience and a totally different perspective on what's important."

Lisa Witte's success "plays into our mission of changing lives through the power of work," Wallace said. "In Lisa's case, this means having a job she's good at, and her being able to count on something from day to day."

Unhappy and agitated "sitting around doing nothing," Lisa usually can't wait to get to work sorting and cutting rags.

The job, which she conducts in a former piano practice room, even has a nice perk. "If she sees a shirt she likes, she won't cut it up, she brings it home," Phyllis Witte said. "Her brothers and sisters went to South Christian High School, so any shirt that says 'South Christian Sailors' she brings home."

But, Lisa can't read, can she? "Actually, I believe she can read somewhat," Phyllis said. "We've had clues along the way."

One big recent clue: Lisa brought home a T-shirt with a slogan that seemed to say it all: "Why bother to fit in when you were made to stand out?"