Nicole Blair helps create opportunities for a nontraditional workforce.
Locals know that after Mardi Gras each year, recycling boxes for unwanted beads appear at schools, banks and stores around town. They may not know, however, that these donations are sorted and processed by people with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are paid for their work. The recycling business is operated by an organization called Arc Enterprises.
It is the employment division of Arc of Greater New Orleans, which supports people with intellectual disabilities from birth throughout their lives. Nicole Blair, director of Arc Enterprises, says the adult population her organization serves is often forgotten about.
“Everything we do is about creating opportunity for the people we support,” Blair says. “Everyone in this world wants to have independence and make their own choices. Arc’s workers earn money to buy their own things, but they get more out of their jobs than money. They meet new people and feel gratified. They don’t want to sit around doing nothing with their lives. Everyone has a right to be included.”
The Mardi Gras bead recycling center works year-round — and sorts through 140,000 pounds of throws, which are then re-sold at much lower prices than retail. But Arc Enterprises has several other business entities as well.
Its janitorial-services business employs the most people. Arc workers clean offices, schools and government agencies around the city, mostly after office hours, and supervisors drive them to different sites. The Arc janitorial business recently lost an account with a municipal agency because the cleaning contract came up for renewal, and another company bid lower. But the account was reinstated to Arc after that company didn’t perform.
“One person at the agency told me how grateful she was we were back,” Blair says. “She said to me, ‘Not only do you do a great job and our place is clean, but you make us better people.’”
Arc Enterprises also runs a grounds-maintenance operation for tracts of land owned by businesses or government agencies. Then there are two farms, one in Metairie and a larger one in Chalmette, that raise everything from culinary herbs to garden plants. Some of the produce from these farms supplies the Vintage Garden Kitchen, where Arc employees make soup for sale at farmers markets. A lunch location in the Place St. Charles food court, also called Vintage Garden Kitchen, sells wraps and other items prepared by Arc employees.
As director, Blair’s role is to manage these various businesses. Currently, she’s in expansion mode, scouting for a second retail space for Vintage Garden Kitchen and looking to book new accounts for the janitorial and grounds-keeping businesses. The larger Arc Enterprises grows, the more people with intellectual disabilities she can hire and the better the organization can fulfill its mission. In part, her role entails educating the community at large.
“Most people don’t think about people with intellectual disabilities as being valuable employees, but they bring a lot to the table,” Blair says. “They do repetitive jobs very well, and they come to work with a ton of enthusiasm. When I’m leaving work for the day, I often cross paths with one of our janitorial employees starting his shift. Every night, he tells me, ‘Thank you for my job. I love it.’ You don’t often get that from a regular janitor.”
She adds that most entry-level employees are content doing their jobs for a limited time before they get dissatisfied and start looking for something else. On the other hand, Arc employees are loyal, grateful and so eager to work that they often don’t want to go home for the day. Turnover is much lower than in the general workforce.
Blair never imagined herself as an advocate for the intellectually disabled, or even working in the nonprofit sector. She worked for more than a decade in corporate sales for the cable industry. Her first job was in her hometown of Lafayette, and her career later took her to Denver, where she worked for Comedy Central as a regional sales manager.
“I wasn’t interested in TV, to tell the truth,” she says. “The money was great, but the job wasn’t very satisfying.”
In the meantime, she would regularly come to New Orleans from Denver to spend Jazz Fest with a friend who worked at Arc. He would always tease her that if she didn’t like what she was doing, she could work for his organization. Blair at first dismissed the idea as a joke, but eventually took it seriously. She had a meeting with his boss and was soon hired. That was nine years ago.
“I was getting bored with corporate sales,” she says. “It’s not boring here. Sure, the money isn’t as good, but working with my group of employees is definitely more rewarding.”