When Blue Sky Inc. was looking for a location in Brainerd, it found what seemed to be a natural fit for its clients.
Blue Sky Support Services is a vocational training program for developmentally disabled adults in Crow Wing County. The vocational training service provider moved into the former wood-working and welding classrooms in the lower level at Franklin Arts Center.
“What’s a better spot than to be in an artist community,” said Jen Billington, Blue Sky program manager in Brainerd.
Billington said what sets Blue Sky apart from other vocational training providers in the area is its focus on creative expression as it assists individuals in the community in finding work. Their work in clay, basket weaving, knitting, painting and jewelry is offered for sale to the public. Proceeds from those sales, minus the cost of materials, goes back to the clients enabling them to earn money. Clients with woodworking skills are paid by the hour to make birdhouses, bird feeders and garden benches. When those items sell, the money earned goes back to Blue Sky.
Blue Sky clients range from recent high school graduates who are just spreading their wings with more independence to those nearing retirement age. Clients, 18 and older, are referred to Blue Sky from social services.
Some clients stay with family members, but most live in group homes. Some come to the program from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. two or three days a week, others arrive each week day. Blue Sky offers a place to make their lunches and starts each morning in a side room with exercise equipment. They also utilize a karaoke machine and Wii. The provider is licensed for 40 clients and currently has 12 in the program. Participants take the bus to go to work at Blue Sky. If the bus isn’t an option, Blue Sky will provide transportation for regional distances.
Recently, clients were taking a lunch break in the former classroom with its distinctive ironbound wood floors. Shelves around the room contain their efforts from intricate bead jewelry and colorful knitted hats to reclaimed furniture, painted wine bottles and hand-crafted greeting cards.
Blue Sky’s parent company is in Detroit Lakes. The seven-year-old company provides supportive employment case management and has a group home. It also offers services to help clients living on their own, such as budgeting, doctor appointments and grocery shopping.
In 2008, when Crow Wing County put out a request for a new provider, Blue Sky answered and expanded to Brainerd. For Billington, who has been working in the field for 15 years, it was an opportunity to start a program based on creative expression. Clients are able to pick work they are interested in. Billington said one lady comes in to knit everyday and is now working on a sweater. She said the reception at Franklin has been good and even if other art center residents may have been wary at first, they’ve won them over.
Pillars of the Blue Sky program provide client choice, community integration and skill development.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity,” Billington said, adding she didn’t realize just how many projects could be done in an artistic way.
They’ve looked for free items to recycle, such as a night stand and dresser. Billington said it has been a good lesson for clients to know just because an item is a little worn it still has value and can find a new purpose. Clients also make place mats out of T-shirts. Billington said clients also run the store, gaining experience and skills there that can translate to other work environments.
Blue Sky’s store is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment on the weekends.
Blue Sky also offers workshops aimed at helping individuals reach job readiness who may have limited work history. Skills covered include resume writing, interviewing or coping with challenges on the job. Blue Sky also assists in job placement for work with area employers like Cub Foods or Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes. The service provider offers extended job training at the work site at no cost to the employer to help ensure the new staff will be a success on the job.
Billington said they are looking for more business partners interested in hiring a dependable individual.
Blue Sky clients also give back to the community through volunteer opportunities like watering and caring for plants at Gregory Park. For others, being able to tap their creative expression through the dignity of work gives them a productive outlet.