The actual beginning of the Plymouth County Work Activity Center can be traced back to 1971, when a group of concerned individuals from the local Association for Retarded Citizens wanted a locally based workshop for persons with disabilities. As the interest grew, the need became more apparent. A group of concerned individuals drew up the incorporation papers for the Plymouth County Work Activity Center, Inc., which became effective on June26, 1972.
The work activity center officially opened its doors on January 3, 1973, in two classrooms of the old Central High School building in Le Mar’s with five clients. Even before the first year of operation was over, the Board of Directors decided to develop plans for a new facility and a fund drive to pay for it. On June 2, 1974, a coffee was held to kick off the fund drive and over 150 people attended. $60,000 was raised from the people of Plymouth County and another $40,000 was funded by the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors. In July of the year, a 5.05 acre building was secured from Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) and leased for 50 years at one dollar. Groundbreaking took place for the new facility on August 12, 1974 and the original building was completed by June 1975. By this time, the number of clients served increased to 16. Additional space was required already by 1977, so another fund Drive was organized, and a $70,000 addition was completed in 1978. Expansion took place again in 1979 when the facility added a 6,000 square-foot warehouse. The warehouse, used for the storage of raw materials and finished products, was financed through a $25,000 loan from a small business administration (SBA). The number of clients served rose from 37 to 42. By 1982 that number had decreased as more clients were transferred to shelter workshop laundry facility.
The sheltered workshop laundry began operation September 1, 1982. It was started in order to provide a locally based, vocational training program to challenge clients who were progressing beyond the work activity level. As a means of providing a realistic work environment, the workshop doubled as a commercial laundry, providing linen services to area businesses and industries on a competitive basis.
At the time of its opening, the sheltered workshop laundry contracted with a local hospital in Le Mars to process approximately 1,500 pounds a week and served four clients who transferred from the work activity center. The laundry occupied 1,990 square feet of what was then the Kramer Construction Building. With increased demand for commercial laundry services in Plymouth County the facility had undergone almost continual expansion. By 1983, several small contracts were secured, and the laundry was using a total of 2,560 square feet. Expanding client services any opportunity to expand laundry contracts allowed the Plymouth County Work Activity Center, Inc., to purchase the building in July 1986. The number of clients receiving sheltered work services rose to 13 by the end of 1986. Plans began immediately to expand the original laundry work area to 7,200 square feet. By the time the second expansion was completed in May 1987, the sheltered workshop laundry was processing 11,000 pounds of linen weekly. In 1988, the organization changed its name to Life Skills Training Center, Inc., to better reflect the type of agency it was and the services that were offered. With the addition of another food manufacturer contract in April 1990, the laundry reached its maximum capacity by processing 30,000 pounds of linen weekly. The laundry maintained that production rate with 30 clients and 18 full or part-time staff.
The early 90’s marked a change in the funding climate for agencies like Life Skills. The state of Iowa froze the rate at which the training centers were reimbursed for the services they provided to persons with disabilities. In addition, the state imposed a property tax freeze on the counties, thus reducing their base of funding for social service programs. While this was occurring, Life Skills was experiencing a depressed market for its wood products produced at the Work Activity Center.
The Life Skills Board of Directors made the decision to pursue grant funding to expand the laundry and consolidate all services there. In February 1992, Life Skills was approved for $152,000 SBA loan. This loan was used in conjunction with Life Skills’ assets to provide match money for a Community Development Block Grant that was applied for and approved in March 1993. With a grant secured, bids were let for the remodeling and expansion of Life Skills laundry building. The bid was awarded to Nelson Engineering from South Sioux City, Nebraska. The project began in January 1994 and was completed in May 1994. In addition to the building remodeling, equipment was added that would double the laundry’s processing capacity. With approximated 60 clients and 31 staff, the laundry operations were capable of processing approximately 29,000 pounds weekly.
With the consolidation of services at the laundry, the Center’s building production operations were slowly phased out. The center building was sold to Smith Company of Lawton, Iowa with the assistance of Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative.
When the expansion/consolidation project was completed in May 1994, Life Skills’ ultimate goal of efficient, effective services was realized. With the streamlining of staff and the addition of a placement manager position, a greater emphasis on placement services resulted. The impact of these changes was evidenced by seven new supported employment training sites that were secured within six months of the completion of the consolidation project. This continued emphasis on community sites is now reflected in the increase from the seven training sites in 1994 to the present 12 community training sites in 1999. Life Skills continue to monitor and streamline its staff and laundry operations in the effort to continue to offer efficient and effective services. The support which Life Skills received from governmental funding sources continued and its downward trend during the last half of the 90’s. In 1995, 32% of the Life Skills budget was received from governmental sources. This figure had declined to 24% in 1999. This has led to Life Skills needing to increase sales of its services and products to our customers and at the same time to continue to streamline and become more effective as a business and provider of services to persons with disabilities.
Life Skills continued to improve its building in equipment during the late 90’s. Equipment and machinery has continued to be updated and replaced. Computer control panels were installed on all washers to control water and chemical usage, thus reducing major costs of operations and allowing more for more efficient use of machinery. Equipment has been continuously replaced as needed an allowed budget constraint. A major building improvement was accomplished in 1998 with installation of air conditioning in the production areas of the building. This improvement was due to a generous contribution to Life Skills from the estate of the late Grace Buehre. With approximately 60 clients and 33 staff, the laundry processes approximately 40,000 pounds weekly and this figure is anticipated to increase with the steady and continued growth of Wells Blue Bunny and the other laundry customers we serve.