For the past 35 years, Ben Watkins has thrived at the Good Shepherd Foundation of Bartow County. Diagnosed with mild intellectual disability, the 58-year-old is a dedicated worker who excels in the nonprofit’s supportive network.
“Ben is known as our ‘big teddy bear,’” said Misty Baynard, the nonprofit’s operations director. “Ben is very compassionate towards his co-workers and has a heart of gold.
“Ben is very mildly-tempered and easy going,” she said, adding he “loves working and challenging himself every day to do more than he did the day before.”
Situated at 66 Gilreath Road in Cartersville, Good Shepherd is providing employment to 39 disabled clients. At the organization’s warehouse, the individuals execute a variety of tasks, such as packaging and sorting, for the organization’s customers.
Watkins is one of nine residents of Hickory Log Vocational School — a personal care home in White — who work at Good Shepherd.
Fondly referring to Baynard as his “sister,” Watkins shared he enjoys working with “all my friends.” Over the past month, his work has become a little more exciting with the arrival of a four-legged creature the clients have named Cat. Along with lounging around his work area, the black-and-white feline often catches a ride on top of Watkins’ palletized containers.
“Ben can perform most job duties offered at Good Shepherd with his favorite being bagging,” Baynard said, adding it is “heartwarming” to see Watkins tackle new tasks and expand his skill set. “Ben is another client who did work out in the community but ultimately decided that he wanted to return to Good Shepherd for the support we give, his co-workers and his longtime ‘sweetheart’ that he has had Good Shepherd for many years.”
Good Shepherd, which became a nonprofit in 1980, was formed to offer training and work opportunities to Bartow’s special needs population.
“There was a collaboration between Good Shepherd Foundation, the ARC of Bartow County, Georgia Diversified and Hickory Log Vocational School,” Baynard said. “From this movement, individuals with significant disabilities were no longer kept at home or expected to do nothing. It has been proven that these individuals are very much a productive part of our community.
“Shepherd Foundation’s purpose is to provide purpose and training to mentally, physically and developmentally challenged individuals. Our program is important to our clients personally as it gives them the chance to become productive members of society. It allows them to socialize with people inside and outside our organization.”
Now serving as the nonprofit’s warehouse assistant, 60-year-old Robert Billingsley was once a client at Good Shepherd. The Cartersville resident initially joined the organization in 2007, after an automobile accident resulted in the limited use of his right arm.
“I got depressed,” Billingsley said about not being able to find work after his accident. “I was so used to working, and I could never get [a] job. Just working here, just fulfilled that void. I can’t stand sitting around the house. And interacting with these guys here, that’s icing on the cake.
“[Being the warehouse assistant] makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. I never worked with clients like this before. But now, after being here with them for some 12 years, I enjoy getting up and coming to work in morning.”
Joining Good Shepherd in 2008 as a part-time administrative assistant, Baynard also is delighted to find a fulfilling job that she enjoys.
“After my father suffered a brain hemorrhage, I quickly developed a love for the disabled, because I now had a person very close to me that would have to learn to live with a disability for the rest of his life,” she said. “It was important to me to learn and serve the disabled population.
“I have been the organization’s director since 2010. To see the clients, thrive and develop, quickly became a passion of mine and still is. Things that most people take for granted are some of the most difficult challenges my clients are faced with. Every day it is my goal to help them in every way possible to make their life a little easier.”
Catering toward individuals 18 and older, Good Shepherd currently features clients with various disabilities, including Down syndrome; autism; cerebral palsy; mild, moderate and severe mental retardation; mildly intellectually delayed; fetal alcohol syndrome; seizure disorders; ADHD; and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Most of our clients suffer from more than one disability,” Baynard said, adding a client’s disability can turn into a strength at Good Shepherd. “We try to match the client’s disabilities with their work abilities. One example I always give, we have a client and one of their disabilities is severe OCD. We have a job that requires that every label go in a precise location every single time without fail.
“I can put this person on that job and know that every single time without fail he’s going to have it in the same spot because of his OCD diagnosis. With this diagnosis, it is imperative for him to have it perfect on every box.”
During their workday, clients perform tasks, such as bagging, boxing, sorting, counting, palletizing, and operating hand sealers, bundling machines and commercial L-bar sealers. The foundation currently fills orders for seven customers: Americo Manufacturing Co. in Acworth; Coats & Clark in Albany; Lift-All in Suwanee; Protex Industries in Cartersville; Westin Trading in St. Louis, Missouri; Sign Zone in Ramsey, Minnesota; and Sulky of America in Kennesaw.
To help broaden its services, Good Shepherd was awarded a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant last month.
Publicly announced Aug. 30, Bartow was one of 59 communities in Georgia to receive federal assistance totaling $41 million. Expecting to take between two to three years with the help of Bartow County’s grant writing department, Baynard and Mark Harris — co-chair of Good Shepherd’s board of directors — were elated the grant process only took 16 months.
“This grant will be life-changing for our organization,” Baynard said. “Most importantly, it means that the clients have a place to call ‘theirs.’ Secondly, we will be able to expand our program to serve the clients better, and we will have the ability to serve more clients for more purposes.
“We plan to build classrooms to help the clients with independent living skills, to help clients succeed in the workplace out in the community, to provide support groups for the clients and to provide additional work training for the clients.”
While some clients see the Good Shepherd as a “stepping stone to get to the workforce,” Harris emphasized this transition will not be mandatory.
“For others, this is a permanent home,” he said. “This is where they want to be. They love coming here. They love working here. They have no interest in moving out.
“We’re not going to require that anybody move out into the workforce, because it’s like a big family up here. We have had clients that have been with us since day one … who grew up here, grew old here.”
As Baynard noted, the grant will enable Good Shepherd to purchase the 20,124-square-foot building that the nonprofit currently is renting from Howren Bros. Properties LLC.
“The most important thing this grant means to Good Shepherd is we will now own our facility and be able to afford to make significant improvements to the property,” Harris said. “Our plans include to make the building a safer place for our clients to work. That means fire safety upgrades, electrical upgrades, roof replacement, climate control and more comfortable features for our clients.
“The grant and our equity share will also allow us to expand services by way of creating more classrooms and learning facilities that will allow us to, where appropriate, train higher functioning clients to transfer into the public workforce environment with job coaches that in turn will qualify us to obtain more government program resources that we don’t qualify for presently.”
In awarding the grant, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs has required Good Shepherd to generate $276,587 in three years.
Along with reaching out to the community for donations, the nonprofit’s board will generate funds through upcoming benefits, such as Rumble by the River.
“Community support, philanthropic support and individual support will be increased once we own our facility — building and real estate,” Harris said. “It’s much easier to find support for building upgrades when we own the building versus when we are renting the building. We must raise over $275,000 in the next three years in matching funds to qualify for this grant.
“We are going to be working hard as a nonprofit board to create several fundraisers to show our community supporters that we want to do everything possible to meet this obligation. And, I’m confident once this effort is displayed to our supporters that they will step up and help us reach our goal.”
To raise funds, the Good Shepherd will present its inaugural Rumble by the River Saturday. Starting at noon, the car, truck and bike show will take place at Law Farm, 1505 Mission Road S.W. in Cartersville.
The cost to enter a vehicle in the event will be $25 and registration will begin at 11 a.m. To sign up in advance, call 770-386-0131.
Along with the show, Rumble by the River will feature live music provided by T.J. Cochran, Samuel Holiday, Ricky Cole and Clayton Ries.
The event will cost $15 for general admission and children 10 and younger will be admitted free.
“We serve the forgotten population to some degree and we have never been so confident that our existence is guaranteed for decades to come having received this generous grant from the DCA, with Bartow County’s help,” Harris said. “We invite anyone who is interested to call us up and arrange to tour our facility, meet our clients, see their work and make any contribution you can.
“We have a couple of board positions available, so if it’s in your heart to serve, we’d love to hear from you. And I want to thank all those who have helped us over the years and promise to continue their support in the future. It’s been the best investment I’ve ever made.”
For more information on Good Shepherd and its fundraising efforts, follow the nonprofit on Facebook @goodshepherd.bartow.