Opportunity for All

Story by Hannah Butler

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Near the tail end of South Arkansas Avenue sits Russellville’s well-known red brick resale shop MARVA. Residents drive back and forth, stopping by to drop off donations of clothing, furniture, household items, decorations, and more. Often they venture inside and shop for a bargain.

Behind the scenes, MARVA’s operations include cleaning, sorting, tagging, and pricing donated merchandise to be sold in the resale shop. There are other services provided to the community that also support MARVA’s purpose, and MARVA’s acronym — Mid-Arkansas River Valley Abilities — makes it clear that the goals are social inclusion for all. The mission is to excel at providing services to adults with developmental disabilities.

The primary way MARVA implements its mission is by providing meaningful employment to these adults, which are referred to as client workers. Although their roles hardly differ from any employee, MARVA provides an environment that allows for both flexibility and safety specific to their individual needs along with a pleasant working atmosphere. Client workers are rarely seen without a grin on their face.

“Our workers take pride in what they do,” Carissa O’Bryant, executive director of MARVA, said. “When you’re an employer — regardless of what your industry is — you want your employees to buy into your mission, you want them to take pride in a job well done. This is exactly what we have at MARVA. They’re very happy to come to work, and they know the work they’re doing is important.”

This is so much the case that many MARVA employees and client workers stick around for more than 30 and even 40 years. It speaks to the family atmosphere MARVA has and the sense of fulfillment individuals experience. Part of that family atmosphere is reflected in the snacks and lunches provided for all 60-plus workers.

And the courtesies extend outside of the workday as well. The MARVA team enjoy social gatherings with one another, fishing, picnics, and participating in Special Olympics bowling. While work requires a business attitude, the team can sense the need for time to reset and refresh.

“They need a break from work sometimes,” said Wendell Bradley, assistant director. “Usually, if we do something like that, it refreshes them, and we see that we’re ready to get back to work.”

This is what MARVA’s employees often did pre-COVID. The get togethers are now fewer and farther between for safety’s sake, and workdays are staggered so that less people are together at the same time.

Jamie Hernandez is a new client worker to the MARVA family. Starting in February with prepping and shredding papers, Hernandez, 20, has autism and bouts of anxiety, but his MARVA job encourages him.

“I love the people and earning money,” Jamie said. His mother Laurie sees the changes within him since he started. Once Jamie got adjusted to his role, Jamie became really just “ready to go,” describes Laurie. Two hours before it’s time for him to clock in, Laurie starts to hear reminders from Jamie that he has to get to work.

“He likes to talk to the people, bring them something he wants to show them,” she said. “He’s just ready to go and a little more confident, and he comments on how much he did while he was at work. He’s seeing how much he’s doing now.”

Before his job at MARVA, Jamie was stuck without a place to go that wouldn’t be too overwhelming.

“I really liked MARVA’s environment because it’s a smaller environment,” she said. “And the people at MARVA are so loving. All the employees, they’re so kind and understanding. If Jamie has had a meltdown or if something has upset him, they want to know what they can do to help him.”

Brooke Raney, a MARVA employee for two years, is a client leader, guiding client workers with their day-to-day responsibilities. She doesn’t see herself going anywhere anytime soon.

“I just really love working with all my clients and I just love helping and being a part of this,” Raney says. “They can teach you a lot of life lessons. For an example, one of my clients said the other day, ‘You know, the odds have been against me since the day I was born, but that doesn’t stop me. I just take the challenges and keep going forward.’”

MARVA’s own challenges can be keeping up with all the services it offers. It’s a resale shop, a nonprofit, a recycling and shredding operation, custom ink pen and calendar maker all-in-one. Recycling includes more than an average recycling bin, too. The shop accepts aluminum cans, books, cardboard, catalogs, chipboard boxes, junk mail and magazines, paper, and plastic shopping bags, in a city where recycling bins are rare. All of these are left to be sorted by their employees and client workers and in the end, benefit the planet. Though, MARVA never wavers from helping people, and is expanding this by including other areas of the community.

A newer service MARVA is highlighting is the Transitions Services program for local high school juniors and seniors. Started in 2017, the program prepares students to accomplish their own goals after high school, whether it’s to start college or go into the workforce.

“They learn how to go through the interview process, how to create a resume, and gain job readiness skills,” O’Bryant said. “It’s very individualized and looks at what they want to do after high school. If they want to work in a retail store, we’ll try to get them some experiences in local retail stores. If a student is technology savvy, we will seek experiences within the community that allows them to work on computers.They are able to gain skills and experience through MARVA’s Transitions Services that will hopefully help with future employment.

“I think just the fact that we provide meaningful employment to adults with disabilities is something to be proud of, and I love coming here because they love coming to work here,” O’Bryant said. “They’re happy. We provide many services to the community,. but what I’m most proud of is just our clients, their work ethic, and their desire to be here. When I first came to MARVA, I was told that it was a special place. I’ve found this to be true.”