By Lt. Col. John Bryan, 78th ABW/PA
/ Published March 21, 2008
Robins Air Force Base, Ga. -- Everyday, the 22,000-plus members on Robins Air Force Base get a helping hand from a group called the Houston County Association for Exceptional Citizens, or Happy Hour Service Center, as it's commonly known.
From picking up recyclables such as paper, cardboard, plastic and newspaper in every work center around base to hardware sorting for Air Force planes to de-numbering tools for the 402nd Maintenance Wing, Happy Hour and its 170 "consumers" do their part to support the warfighter.
Not only does Happy Hour help support the mission of the Air Force, it also benefits the consumers, the developmentally disabled citizens who work at the service center. Happy Hour runs programs for consumers to include self-help, socialization and adaptive skills for daily living, work skill training, recreation, community integration, outreach services and residential services.
"Consumers are training in daily living skills, communication skills, social skills and work adjustment skills. Everyone is guided toward reaching his or her fullest potential," said Jim Cheshire, associate director for the Happy Hour Service Center. "We put people who want to work into paying jobs, and provide a quality service to Robins and our surrounding communities everyday."
Mr. Cheshire, a retired Air Force B-52 pilot, has been working at Happy Hour for nearly 20 years and has seen the non-profit organization grow into a $4 million example of how good ideas turn into a huge community partner.
"I guess you could say I'm doing what I really love," Mr. Cheshire said. "Seeing these hard-working patriots come to work with smiles on their faces each day gives me an incredible amount of pride to be here."
Started in 1956, the center began in modest surroundings at the local Second Baptist Church. It has since expanded to four buildings, which house workshops, administrative offices and classrooms. The center also runs two group homes, which serve four consumers each, and an apartment complex, which serves 10 consumers in a semi-independent living environment.
The developmentally disabled adults work with many businesses and organizations in the community, including Robins. They assemble hospital kits for Houston Medical Center, clean bank code cards for 3SI in Macon, Ga.; and, assemble plastic kits for Sunbelt Plastics.
"It's important for folks to know our consumers are just like them," Mr. Cheshire said. "They come to work, get a paycheck and pay taxes like all Americans. But most importantly, they live productive lives in the community and have accomplished something when they go home each day. We think that's pretty important."
Consumers who might need a little more direction from instructors to keep them on task, work in workshops at the service center. Others are placed in jobs throughout the community, including three consumers who work at base restaurants.
"We have a community employment program that helps place consumers in various jobs," said Lori Pekny, a human resources assistant at Happy Hour. "Job coaches take them to the job site and train with them and stay in contact with the management to make sure there aren't any problems."
Happy Hour's largest project is recycling. More than two hundred tons of items are recycled each month, and 40 percent comes from Robins. In January alone, Happy Hour consumers hauled away more than 164,000 pounds of recyclable items for the base. Since July, Robins has recycled more than 1.5 million pounds of items, helping divert 750 tons of refuse from going into Houston County's landfill yearly. Much of the recycling proceeds are returned to the base.
Don Kendrick, 78th Contracting Squadron, said Robins has received more than $575,000 in proceeds from recyclable items since October 2004. He said, "Happy Hour does a good job for us and I am sure they do the job for less than it might cost the base to pay another contractor."
Although the amount paid to Happy Hour exceeds the amount returned in proceeds, Ben Torrey, environmental manager in the 78th Civil Engineer Group, said it still costs far less than what it would cost the base to dispose of the material.
"Even though we don't collect enough revenue to cover the cost of the entire contract, it is a cost effective alternative to disposal. Plus, it's environmentally the right thing to do," Mr. Torrey said.
It would be hard to deny the impact Happy Hour has, not only on the environment but especially on the lives of those disabled citizens it serves. Like most consumers at Happy Hour, Joe P. enjoys having a job and being productive.
"I like working for Robins. It is a good job," said Joe P., a consumer at Happy Hour. "I pick up paper and sometimes I sort it here in the workshop."
-- Additional reporting by Kendahl Johnson