by Jana Riley
In a small, unassuming building on the outskirts of downtown Augusta, a dozen employees are hard at work. An older gentleman sands a beautiful antique wardrobe smooth, navigating the sandpaper along its unique curves with quiet attention, while a young man clad in workout gear focuses on hand-caning the seat of an old chair. A group of women sit at a table, painting notecards with individual flair, while out back, a trio of men work on staining a wooden furniture set. At a long table in a rear workshop, a few employees deftly create intricate wooden snowflakes using soaked wood splints. All around, a palpable creative energy flows, and it is clear that the talented employees are happy to be here creating and fixing, and being around one another together. For many of these adults, all of whom are physically disabled, intellectually disabled, or both, this place is one of the best things to ever happen to them.
It is not difficult to consider that for many physically and intellectually disabled adults, life is a series of challenges that reach past the personal ones they have to deal with on a daily basis. Regularly, they encounter challenges of society, like the fact that they have a much harder time finding employment than their able-bodied peers, and the fact that all too often, they are assumed to be less competent than they actually are. The effects of such circumstances can be damaging, discouraging people with disabilities from being engaged with their community and causing them to feel isolated. Enter Augusta Training Shop, a beacon of hope for adults in Augusta born with disabilities. Here, these people are treasured employees of a well-respected company. They are valued for their abilities and skills, enabling them to realize their potential while being active, contributing members of the Augusta community. They are given the opportunity to be creative, and with that gift, they soar. Here, they find purpose, confidence, and happiness.
Augusta Training Shop was not always the type of institution it is today. Initially founded in 1947 as the Augusta Area Cerebral Palsy Society, the program originally served as more of a daycare facility for disabled residents, with no focus on overall life enrichment or productivity. In the late 1960’s, the society split into two organizations: Augusta Training Shop and the Cerebral Palsy Society.
Slowly, changes began to happen at Augusta Training Shop. The team established a furniture service, offering the opportunity for the attendees of the program to be paid employees learning marketable skills, while offering the community a place to receive furniture refinishing, repair, restoration, and assembly at a fraction of prices found elsewhere. Additionally, the employees began to learn hand caning, the delicate art of using material to create woven chair seats, seat backs, canoe seats, stools, and more. Through these services, which are still in effect today, the employees not only learn how to hand cane, strip, stain, paint, and polish furniture, but also how to maintain proper work schedules, establish proper coworker and supervisor relationships, improve time management skills, and so much more. With every new Executive Director, the program became more focused on enriching the lives of the people in their charge, and by the time former intern, Audrey Murell, came on board and began to enact some of her ideas, the organization entered into full bloom.
As a city with more nonprofits per capita than nearly any other in the United States, Augusta is a place where hearts are full and people thrive on helping one another. While it makes for a beautiful social landscape, the local charities often find themselves in friendly competition with one another, seeking funding and sponsorships from the same corporations and wealthy donors. To combat this issue, Murell sought another way to help fund the organization.
With the assistance of longtime Augusta Training Shop employee, Adrian, the two created intricate wooden snowflake designs, using some of the same materials used for hand caning seats. The initial prototypes created by Adrian and Audrey were beautiful, and soon, Audrey began to train the other employees in creating the snowflake designs. Some took to the weaving quickly, while others found their skills were better suited for cutting the wood, tying an info card to the snowflake, assembling postcards and price tags, or packing them for shipping.
Audrey started taking the artistic creations to craft fairs, and local boutiques such as The Swank Company, Cudos2U, and The Beveled Edge. Soon, she was approached by Garden & Gun Magazine, who featured them in their online publications and their annual Jubilee event. Wholesale vendors started reaching out, and local companies placed large orders for holiday gifts. Especially during the holiday season, the orders just kept flowing in from people passionate about the heirloom-quality, old world style of the handmade wooden snowflakes, which range in size from ornaments to large wall hangings. Now, four years later and stronger than ever, it is safe to say that Audrey’s idea was a successful one, increasing the annual funding of the program while simultaneously inspiring confidence and artistic expression in the artisan employees of Augusta Training Shop.
Today, the team of employees at Augusta Training Shop is a varied bunch who each find their place within the furniture services and wooden snowflake programs. Some are deaf, some are blind, some are nonverbal, some are intellectually disabled, and some deal with physical limitations, but all are active, contributing employees receiving a paycheck each month while working within the scope of their abilities.
The program includes people like Beverly, a friendly woman who has spent over three decades at the Augusta Training Shop and who says about Audrey Murell, “that’s my baby right there.” Beverly and her brother Robert are both in their 60’s and are some of the longest attendees of the program, having come to the shop for over 35 years. Dee, nicknamed “Sunshine,” has a huge grin, an artistic flair, and a penchant for giving wonderful hugs in between her work, which includes painting, working in the kitchen, and shredding paper for packing boxes. Victor is a polite and kind 29-year-old, a master at both hand caning and weaving snowflakes, and also volunteers with a local athletic team. Maurey is 28 with a gentle countenance, beautiful handwriting, and an expert ability to set up the snowflake weaving stations for the artisan employees. Demarcus has attended the program for two years, and is the most conscientious employee, making consistent efforts to keep a clean workspace wherever he goes. Kenny likes to make people laugh with his impressions, can remember everyone’s birthday perfectly, and rides the city bus for over two hours to get to work each day, even though he lives only miles away. And, of course, there’s Adrian, 54 years old and the co-founder of the snowflake program. He was 21 when he started, and still comes to work five days a week, assisting in areas all over the shop. Like the dozens of snowflake designs the shop offers, each of the 25 people currently employed at Augusta Training Shop is wholly unique, offering their own set of skills and abilities to the cause.
One of Audrey Murell’s mottos is to “live life according to our gifts, rather than our limitations,” and at Augusta Training Shop, it is clear Murell’s impact is strong. At the shop, the employees are surrounded by people who genuinely love them, and they are encouraged to set goals and work toward them regularly. They establish friendships, gain confidence, achieve personal successes, and lead meaningful lives. They contribute to their community in myriad ways and are appreciated by their peers. Together, the team at Augusta Training Shop is changing lives, and between their attentive furniture restoration, highly detailed wooden snowflakes, and friendly spirits, they add a considerable amount of beauty to the world.