The Opportunity Center’s origins date back to 1965 as a private effort initiated by Ruth Dessloch, a nurse at the Elmwood Nursing Home. Identifying a need to enhance the lives of the growing number of mentally disabled individuals, Mrs. Dessloch opened up the basement of her home for evening activities.
A year later the Crawford County Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) rallied behind her and formalized the program by creating a Community Day Care Services Board. The Personal Development Center was born. Financed by the State and County, the Center presented living and learning programs to the disabled.
The organization moved out of Dessloch’s basement into a church on Beaumont Road. “Then, things were very informal,” says then staff member Karla DuCharme (Troester), “we had very little funding.”
The program continued to expand as the Personal Development Center later moved into the former EUB church building on South Michigan Street. The number of clients served by the Center had risen to approximately sixty-five by 1975. “We taught personal care, academic classes,” says Troester, “made arts & crafts, went for walks, and had a party on Fridays.”
During the mid-70’s that the Personal Development Center began to take on work orders for the clients to complete. One of the first jobs came from the Lansing Button Company sorting and packaging buttons. Sheila Walsh (Swatek) was a staff member at the time. “It was kind of scary, but exciting,” she says, “When we first got the button job everyone was so excited. This was real work and the clients were getting paid for it.” For many of the clients this was the first gainful employment they had experienced. This new operation was called The Opportunity Center.
The staff quickly noticed the positive impact that work-related responsibilities had on the clients. “There was a lot less behavioral problems,” says Swatek. “We saw how much it meant to them,” added Troester, “how good that felt to them – that they could be productive.”
These new work contracts became a new revenue source for the organization, allowing the Opportunity Center to expand services and staff. The shift to paid production work allowed clients to develop new skills and confidence that aided them in reaching their highest potential.
A dedicated work facility for the Opportunity Center came in 1975 when production was moved to the roller rink on East Campion Boulevard. Serving primarily as a workspace for clients, the building also housed a gift shop featuring craft items made at the Center and other similar workshops throughout Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the day services offered by the Personal Development Center remained at their Michigan Street location.
In addition to the work for Lansing Button Company, one of the leading items manufactured at the Opportunity Center during that time was a nylon kitchen scrubber with the trade name Scrub Bun. Also, clients were often productive certifying and labeling plant food products by 3M.
The Opportunity Center became an effective avenue for helping clients to join society. “There was an assumption by [by the public] that the clients couldn’t do competitive work,” says former Director Joe Lehnan. “Our goal,” he says, “was to incorporate these people into the community doing productive work.”
Production work increased during the late 70’s. Area companies such as Rayovac, Cam-Car, Howe Printing, and 3M all sub-contracted work to the Opportunity Center. Mike Lechnir supervised the production department at the time. “We didn’t get sub-contracts from companies that are sympathetic because the workers are handicapped,” he told the Courier Press in 1977, “we receive them because our customers are satisfied with the work we are doing.”
In 1979, under the direction of Stan Vogel, a brand new 15,800 square foot facility was built on State Street, its present day location. Operations at the Personal Development Center were phased out and incorporated into the new Opportunity Center. With the new building in place, day services, training, and production work all occurred under the same roof. “The clients were very excited. We were very excited,” says Troester, “Things were really expanding. It was wonderful.”
In the new Opportunity Center building, the focus on production work continued to push the clients to reach their full potential. “We were pushing the envelope,” Lehnan says, “We wanted to take some chances; to do something that they hadn’t done before. They had to do something with expectations, with quality. And, it pushed their confidence to higher levels.”
New work continued to come from area companies: Richland Industries, Allen Bradley, Richland Foundry, Prairie Tool, and more. But, the biggest development in the Opportunity Center’s production history came from the increased work from 3M during the early 80’s.
By the mid-80’s, the client payroll was $100,000. “They get paid every two weeks just like the staff,” Lehnan told the Courier Press in 1986, “That is their money to control, spent right here in town.”. Clients were coming from Prairie du Chien, Eastman, Seneca, Mt. Sterling, Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove, Fennimore, and Boscobel. The Opportunity Center used a fleet of nine vehicles to transport clients to and from work.
The Opportunity Center continued to expand upon it’s current location through the 80’s and 90’s. A 2nd shift was added in 1986 to fulfill the increased production demand and continued until 2000. Additions onto the original building occurred in 1988 when the existing office area was created, and 1987 & 1990 when additional warehousing was added to the main building. In 2005, a large stand-alone warehouse was built for additional storage and available for leasing space to other businesses. The increased production revenue during this time became very important, as it coincided with a significant decrease in funding from local and state programs.
The Opportunity Center continues to expand it’s scope of work adding a greenhouse (Opportunities Blooming) and a farmers market (Prairie Street Farmers Market) in 2010 as new ways for clients to become further integrated into the community. A new commercial kitchen, bakery, and co-packing operation will begin in 2011.