Nestled in the heart of Sturgeon Bay’s West Side Industrial Park is a unique organization that provides jobs, training, and care to Door County adults with disabilities. This year, Sunshine House Inc. will celebrate its 40th anniversary, as it continues its mission as a “diverse community service organization whose purpose is to achieve full participation in society for people with special needs.”
The staff of Sunshine House work hard to find a good match for their employees, and they are passionate about providing options for the people they serve. On any given day, employee/participants can be found working hard “on the floor” of its large industrial space, busy with jobs such as creating mailings, assembling parts, wrapping candles, and packaging merchandise for community businesses that contract work out to Sunshine House. Participants are trained and supervised by paid staff, and themselves are also paid for their work.
Jim Meyer, CEO of Sunshine House since 2009, says that these relationships with local companies are beneficial in so many ways, including producing quality work for its business partners. “The work makes us more visible, and it also contributes to our overhead,” he adds. In fact, 23 percent of the organization’s budget is covered by the contracted work that Sunshine House completes for its local partners including Hatco, Midwest Wire, N.E.W. Industries, and Just in Time Corporation.
Every morning, Sunshine House’s 70 participants arrive by van and bus from their homes throughout the county. About 18 of these participants are served in the Personal Care department, which works with people with the most severe physical and developmental challenges. The rest of Sunshine House’s employee/participants start their days with a team meeting, during which staff describes the available work for that day and divides participants into teams. People then disperse to the floor of the work area or travel to their places of employment within the community.
“There’s a great deal of pride here,” says trainer Bill Rehman. “People think about disability, but really there’s so much ability.” The ability is obvious in the smooth operations of the workstations throughout the building, and in the way that employees and staff greet each other warmly as they pass in the halls. “Hey, Jim!” calls one employee, giving his boss a big wave. It’s the positive, family atmosphere that makes Sunshine House a unique place to be. “Monday is their favorite day,” Rehman says of his employees. “They like coming back to work.”
In addition to in-house work, about 22 Sunshine House employees work on cleaning crews that have built an excellent reputation working at local churches and other businesses. “The Sunshine House Cleaning Crew has been cleaning Hope Church for about three years. They do a fantastic job for us,” says Reverend Richard Feyen.
By all accounts, Sunshine House is a highly successful nonprofit organization. “The community awareness and support, the support of the United Way, and the support from the county – all of these things have made it nice to come here,” says Meyer of his two-year tenure. With a successful capital campaign recently completed and a mortgage that was symbolically burned in November, Sunshine House is in a good position to continue its work.
But the model for care and vocational training is changing, and Meyer is leading the charge to adapt Sunshine House to new programs and expectations. “We’re moving towards more and more community involvement for our participants, and towards a ‘managed care’ model,” he says. More than half of Sunshine House’s funding is federal, state, and local monies that come through Door County Community Services. Given the current fiscal climate, that could change. Meyer is helping to lead local and regional efforts to consolidate and improve services, evidenced by the new grants, programs, and legislative work that he and his staff are taking on.
Meyer points to a talented and involved 13-member board of directors as one of the main reasons for the organization’s success. Board members are passionate about their work, and they lead events such as the annual Christmas Wreath Sale, and the Corn Fest held annually in September, as well as fundraising and governance of the organization. Susan Mazza is wrapping up a six-year tenure on the board. “People with developmental differences are ever more marginalized in the workplace,” she says. “At Sunshine House, people can learn the techniques and disciplines of working at a job, and function at the fullest of their abilities.” And, she adds, “They just love to be there. It’s a real family.”
Meyer is also quick to point out that Sunshine House employees earn paychecks and, unlike many Door County residents who may travel far and wide, “they spend their money right here in Door County.” On Saturday nights, a group of friends have a regular bowling date at Apple Valley Lanes, and they eat out at local restaurants and spend at local stores. Sunshine House participants also pride themselves on their own giving back to the community. Every year, employees form a team that walks in the Relay for Life, last year raising over $3,000 for cancer research. Employees also donate to the United Way campaign.
In addition to work opportunities, Sunshine House provides events for social, cultural, and recreational enrichment. Entering the cafeteria, visitors are greeted by a colorful mural of flowers and butterflies, created by Sunshine House participants with the help of art teacher Jim Rericha and Sevastopol middle school students. Singing and cooking classes, exercise, and social events build community and enrich the lives of participants. A bright and beautiful new activity room is complete with exercise equipment, computers, and quiet corners to rest or do crafts. Like any work place, Sunshine House’s staff and employees love to come together to celebrate, evident in February’s pre-Superbowl brat fry held on a Friday afternoon. Participants take trips to local museums, libraries, and stores, and volunteers add to diverse recreational offerings.
Two of Sunshine House’s “astounding” volunteers are Bill Bauernfeind and Renee Kujawski. Bauernfeind volunteers as a reader twice a week, and Kujawski offers music classes each Wednesday. But their best-loved effort is the annual musical that Bauernfeind writes and the couple directs and produces, which features the talents of Sunshine House participants.
“It’s wonderful,” says Bauernfeind, “because we can tailor the parts to the strengths and abilities of individuals.” Past productions have included Pirates of the Chairibeen, Mary Pops, and an adaptation of Harry Potter. This summer’s show is titled Wolfie and the Chocolate Factory, a blend of the Roald Dahl classic and The Three Little Pigs. The show is a joyful celebration of the diverse people who make up Sunshine House. “The audience gets to see them as who they are…people with their own individual personalities.”
“When it comes right down to it,” adds Bauernfeind, “I think they’re the bravest individuals I’ve ever worked with. They’re very courageous people.”
Meet Karl DeMeuse
Karl has been a Sunshine House employee/participant for 15 years. A Southern Door graduate, Karl lives with his family and commutes to Sunshine House daily. He’s a busy guy: he works on the floor (recently, capping sockets and packing merchandise for Hatco), is a member of the church cleaning crew, and works Sunday nights at Sonny’s Pizzeria in Sturgeon Bay as a dishwasher. Karl’s smile is broad and infectious as he shares his passion for country music, deer hunting, and fishing. Karl is proud of his work and of the money he earns. “I’m saving up for Country USA. But I’m getting flowers for my girlfriend, too.” (A wise move since our interview took place on Valentine’s Day.) Karl sums up the best part of being at Sunshine House simply: “I have lots of friends.”
Photos courtesy of the Sunshine House.