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About Alternatives Unlimited, Inc

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part Sunday series looking at the past, present and future of Alternatives Unlimited, which serves developmentally disabled adults and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Philip Johnson enhances his range of motion by rolling a yellow ball into a triangle of cones while JoAnn Taylor marches off to
 – more... her first semester of college classes.

These are two people doing completely different things, but both of their lives are enriched by Alternatives Unlimited Inc. Whitinsville-based Alternatives, started in 1976 and still celebrating its 30th anniversary, is a non-profit corporation that provides daytime and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness throughout the Milford area. This week, the organization was focused on celebrating its employment, educational and therapeutic services.

"Our focus is on people's abilities, not their disabilities," said Bill Gravel, director of the Career Center in Milford that opened in 1997 on Main Street.

While the organization has several career centers throughout the region dedicated to helping individuals with mental illnesses reach their employment or education goals, Gravel heads the center in the heart of Milford, he said.

"We serve 35 to 40 people on a regular basis in this office with six career counselors who are out making connections in the community," said Gravel.

Taylor, 48, of Milford, is one of their success stories, working on her degree in accounting at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Gravel said.

"For some of them, they'll never get a paid position, but they will have a productive day," Dennis Rice, executive director of Alternatives, has said of the organization's adult learning centers.

The individuals with developmental disabilities, like Johnson, 49, of Milford, work with occupational, physical and speech therapists to develop basic motor skills and maintain flexibility at adult learning centers stretching throughout greater Milford.

Each individual goes to the day center closest to them five days a week from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to develop these skills, make friends and function as normally as possible in everyday situations, said Lois Shokunbi, program director for the adult learning center in Whitinsville and the Center for Personal Achievement in Hopedale.

"We want to encourage the individuals to do whatever activity they show interest in as independently as possible," said Shokunbi walking through the halls of the Hopedale center recently.

The Hopedale center split from the Whitinsville center last October and serves about 16 clients with two workrooms, a large occupational therapy space, a sensory room and an eight-person staff, said Shokunbi.

One of Shokunbi's favorite success stories is Johnson's, who has lived in a nursing home since he was 21 years old and was described as "withdrawn and passive" before coming to Alternatives, she said.

"Now he volunteers at the bird sanctuary and he loves horseback riding and swimming (two popular group activities at the center)," said Shokunbi. "Now he has confidence and he loves to meet new people. Also if you like to talk about sports he'll talk your ear off. Johnson's confidence shows as he works with developmental specialist Harold Akenga. Johnson stands on a trampoline to work on his balance as he plays catch with Akenga.

"He's focusing on his balance while also focusing on throwing and catching the ball," said Akenga.

As soon as Johnson completes one activity, he goes straight to the wall of exercises to point out to Akenga what he wants to do next. "Phil's very helpful," said Akenga.

"He's an inspiration to all of us," said Shokunbi. "We like to believe his success comes from our commitment to the personal and social development of an individual."

That commitment spreads throughout the Alternatives program and helped Vincent Griffin, 56, Milford, reach his career goals with the help of the Milford Career Center, Griffin said.

"Vincent hadn't been employed since 1993, because he had to stay home and take care of an ill family member," said Jodie St.Louis, his career counselor.

Being stuck in his home and out of work put Griffin in a low emotional state, he said. His mind was filled with worry about his weight, health, credit card debt and the stress of getting a job again, Griffin said. "When people come to our program, they meet with a counselor, create a career plan based on their interests, do their resumes on the computer and sometimes they have to go out and gain career experience," said Gravel. Since Griffin was apprehensive about working again, St. Louis thought it would be best to try out janitorial work at one of their many job training sites, she said.

"Our staff does a lot of networking," said Gravel. "They go out and make connections in the community (with businesses) and they meet a lot of people our clients can work with. "Jodie went to the job with me and helped me write down everything I needed to do step-by-step," said Griffin. "So once I started to go it alone I had a checklist. Griffin is happier and healthier, now working 10 to 18 hours a week as a janitor, making friends and paying off his debt, he said. "We work to connect people like Vincent to the resources they need to be successful," said St. Louis. "Once he started the job, he worked really well with the agency."

"When people take that step toward getting a real job for the first time in their life, it's a really happy moment and it's neat for us to get to experience that," said Gravel.

Amber Herring may be reached at aherring@cnc.com or 508-634-7546. – lessMore from ZoomInfo »

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