Center finds clients' strengths

Posted: Monday, August 22, 2005

Jacob Mallinger carefully placed shattered stained glass on a piece of contact paper on the bottom of a mold. He was creating a pattern for a garden stone.

"It is the pattern of the northern lights," said Margie Thomson, who helped Mallinger start his masonry business.

Thanks to the Juneau Job Center, Mallinger, a 22-year-old man with Down Syndrome, can be an entrepreneur and do something he excels at and enjoys.

In the past, vocational trainers focused on helping people with disabilities fit into a job. The new trend is to identify their strengths and customize a job for them.

"We call it discovery," said Thomson, project assistant of the job center's customized employment grant program. "It is strength-based. We look at what they can offer and create a job they can do."

Since the program's inception in January of 2004, the job center has customized jobs for 13 people with disabilities, ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to severe brain injuries and physical challenges.

Juneau is one of five cities that provide customized employment in the state.

One client paves trails for Southeast Alaska Guidance Association. One checks stocks for Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts. One shreds confidential documents for a law firm.

"Sometimes it takes a while to find what they are passionate about," Thomson said.

Mallinger has tried working as a custodian and has been working part-time for World Wide Movers. But masonry is his real passion.

While Mallinger was in the transition program with the Juneau-Douglas School District, he learned how to mix concrete and make garden stones.

"He wants to be like his father," said Mallinger's mother, Lora.

Mallinger's father, Greg, was a mason before he died nine years ago. Lora said Mallinger helped his father carry rock while his father was building the resurrection station at the Shrine of St. Therese.

With a federal grant of $2,000, Mallinger bought a prefabricated shed as his workshop, a business license, concrete molds for making stones and materials.

He is the first one in the customized employment program who has started his own business.

"He likes being his own boss," said Tracy Lee, Mallinger's job developer. Lee works for REACH Inc. "He can pick the time to work."

Teamwork is key to Mallinger's success.

Family members and several nonprofits help with his personal and professional life.

One of his family friends built the shed for him.

Staff members from Hope and REACH Inc., nonprofits that provide support for people with disabilities, cut glass for Mallinger and help him with house chores. Lee has helped Mallinger deal with business paperwork. Alaska Solutions, another nonprofit agency, coordinates all the service providers and supporters. Thomson has helped him get the funding for Mallinger's business.

Lora showers Mallinger with encouragement and compliments.

"Great job," Lora said, when Mallinger removed cement stains from the glass pieces.

Lora said she hopes Mallinger can eventually live a life of independence.

"Self-sufficiency is the bottom line," she said.

Mallinger has created four patterns: Northern Lights (a mix of stained glass in different shapes), Sandy Beach (random placement of natural stones), Ocean (blue marbles in circles) and Twin Lakes (round stained glass in random order). He also takes special orders. He sells each piece for $15.

Mallinger said he will save money for college.

"I will study English, history, math and computers," he said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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