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Kingston center serves the developmentally disabled

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Here's what Darnell Hamilton, 29, brings to his job site every day: A giant smile. An infectious laugh. A willingness to work.

But Hamilton also brings a set of intellectual disabilities that prevent him from holding a typical job, or working a typical eight-hour day.

At the Michael Dunn Center in Kingston, Hamilton shreds documents, earning enough money to take small shopping trips and buy tickets for his beloved Kingston High School football games. When he decides his workday is complete, he spends time in the center's day program, in art or exercise class, or playing games -- whatever makes his day "meaningful," said Wade Creswell, vice president of development for the nonprofit center.

"He can't work all the time, but he can work some of the time," Creswell said. "And he wants to."

Many services

Hamilton has been coming to the center for about five years, but it wouldn't be uncommon if he had been coming there his whole life, as some other clients have.

The agency provides a broad array of services: preschool through high school education, then job placement, case management, day services and housing for adults. It provides conservatorship services for more than 100 adults statewide, and puts a half-million miles a year on 100 vehicles, taking people into the community.

Its namesake, Michael Dunn, who has Down syndrome, is now an adult, married and in his own home, but he and his wife are employed through the center -- he at a manufacturing plant, she on a janitorial crew that cleans local hotels. Dunn's mother, when he was born, was appalled at the lack of services for parents who, like herself, wished to keep special-needs children at home; his grandfather C.R. Lay lobbied the state legislature.

Yet despite the fact that the 40-year-old agency, on 17 acres on state Highway 58, just off Interstate 40, oversees 20 residential homes and serves close to 400 people a year, many people had never heard of the Michael Dunn Center until a case made national news in June.

Crisis help

Court documents said Lynn Cameron, a 19-year-old Illinois woman with developmental disabilities whose mother abandoned her in a Caryville bar, was served and housed by the Michael Dunn Center. She's now back in Illinois.

Officials at the center can't comment on Cameron, even to verify she was a client. But a "crisis" situation is about the only way the center gets new adult clients these days.

For example, the center operates a school for special-needs students who struggle in public schools.

"We graduate seniors every May, and we make a big deal out of it," Creswell said. "But deep down in our hearts, it's bittersweet, because we know that ... if they require (Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) funding, they're going to go home and be put on a waiting list."

Waiting list

Tennessee's DIDD has 7,100 state residents waiting to receive services, said Missy Marshall, DIDD director of public affairs. They're divided into four categories: "crisis," "urgent," "active" and "deferred."

But funding is so scarce, only those in "crisis" -- usually adults whose lifelong caregivers have died or are terminally ill -- get services, Marshall said. In fact, she said, DIDD receives 50-100 "crisis" requests a month -- people homeless or in danger -- but can place only 10-12 of those.

And "we're enrolling them at the point in their lives where services are most expensive," Marshall said, because often they've been without physical or behavioral care.

Fixing that would require restructuring the system: evaluating each case and capping services to make sure clients aren't taking up a disproportionate share of resources. DIDD last year tried capping the number of hours people could get personal assistance in their homes, but a lawsuit decided people already in the system who met certain criteria were exempt.


While it was a victory for those who wanted to stay in their homes but needed a lot of help to do so, it was a blow for those waiting to receive any services. Marshall said new enrollees will be subject to a cap on services: "We have to serve more people on less money."

The Michael Dunn Center gets government funds, but Creswell said funding hasn't kept up with the increasing cost of providing quality of life. So he applies for grants, solicits donations from companies and individuals (though that accounts for less than 2 percent of the center's $11 million budget) and seeks contract jobs the center's clients can perform. They're paid according to Department of Labor guidelines.

The center provides curbside recycling and document shredding services to companies in Roane and surrounding counties and then reselling the processed recycling. A contract making bungee cords used to haul away ash from the Kingston ash spill employed eight to 10 people full-time for about two years but ended in December, Creswell said. However, for several months the clients have been making nylon straps used to dredge New York's Hudson River, and that job could last years, he said.

Some understand the purpose of their work, he said, while others "just want to come to work every day."

Work force

Clients also scrub badges, make cargo nets and cut filters. Camel Manufacturing uses them to cut rope to specific lengths, some with intricate knots, which certain clients do very quickly. Washers and dryers line one wall of the workshop, under a sign referencing the "Laundry Service" of a certain client.

That client, who has autism and other disabilities, graduated from the center's school but soon regressed because he lost the structure that had helped him thrive, Creswell said. Since one of his favorite activities was to stand over a washer, watching it agitate, some staff set him up washing towels for a few beauty shops.

Eight years later, his customers include Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Knox County Health Department and several salons and hotels.

"A friend, a home and a job -- don't we all want that?" Marshall said. "If you put (our clients) in the right environment, they can excel."

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