Terry Johnson, Genesis Development’s CEO, discusses maps that show where throughout Iowa and the United States the organization has shipped cardboard boxes made by Custom Boxes Online. The Jefferson-based company has sent boxes to all 50 states, Europe, South America, Guam and the U.S. Army in Iraq.

Genesis still offers a new beginning for many

Jefferson-based nonprofit turned 40 in 2013

For The Jefferson Herald

For a time, he was merely tolerated in Jefferson.

But after a young man who works with Genesis Development to make custom boxes was overheard discussing an order for IBM, people began to look at him differently, said Terry Johnson, Genesis Development’s CEO.

“It’s elevated his position in the community,” Johnson said. “People will ask, ‘What are you working on today?’ They accept him as an employee and a worker, not someone with a disability.”

That’s what Genesis Development does — it seeks to train adults with disabilities and to find work opportunities for them. Most importantly, Johnson said, it seeks to help those adults become integrated into the community, often using their work as a tool.

For 40 years, Genesis Development, which has offices and centers across the state, has helped thousands of people develop job skills and find jobs.

Many of those people work with Custom Boxes Online, a company owned by Genesis Development that makes cardboard boxes of any style, size or color.

The box company started small. At first, the idea of having a website and expanding orders to other states seemed far reaching, but over the years, Custom Boxes Online has made boxes for the armed forces in Iraq, the Coast Guard in Alaska and companies such as Monsanto and IBM.
It has shipped boxes to all 50 states, Canada, South America, Guam and Europe. Two maps cluttered with pushpins hang in the Genesis Development building and track where orders have gone.

Custom Boxes Online doesn’t hide the fact that it is associated with Genesis Development, but it doesn’t advertise it, either, Johnson said.

“We are not ashamed of who we are, but we don’t want prejudice to slam the door in the faces of our folks,” he said.

He recalled one of the company’s biggest orders — from IBM, to the tune of $22,000.

Sometime after the company received the shipment, several IBM employees were in Iowa and wanted a tour of the plant. Afterward, one of them asked Johnson, “What are you really?” After listening to his description of Genesis Development, the employees left.

A week later, IBM placed a second large order with Custom Boxes Online.

The company will take any order, even small ones, differentiating it from larger box companies that prefer orders for thousands of boxes, Johnson said. He recalled that a man in Phoenix once paid $75 for a single box. He wanted it to hold his Christmas tree.

In addition to the box production, Genesis Development also has recycling subcontracts with several companies. Those who work with Genesis Development receive and sort various recycled items.

Johnson joked that the company will take any type of recycling work “if it doesn’t glow in the dark” — but that doesn’t mean those with particularly dirty or unpleasant items can automatically assume Genesis Development will take them.

“We’re not doing stuff other people won’t do,” he said. “We’ll look at everything, but we will say no to a job.”

Genesis Development uses its work center — which includes the production of the boxes, the recycling and other tasks — to teach work skills and to assess abilities such as fine motor skills and the capacity to stand for long periods of time. However, the organization doesn’t want to keep people there. Rather, it seeks to place people in jobs throughout the city and then provide them with support as needed.

In some cases, people who come to Genesis Development are immediately placed in a job in the city, rather than spending time in the work center.

“The big thing is being integrated into the community and being a part of the workforce in the community,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to keep them in the work center; the emphasis is on community integration. This is a stepping stone. They’re not here for the rest of their lives.”

On a busy day, there might be 30 or more people in the work center, but many more are completing jobs throughout the Jefferson area — working at schools, the recreation center, grocery stores and many other businesses.

In a few cases, when the fit is right, some people are hired to work long term in the work center. They are paid above minimum wage and receive the same benefits as other Genesis Development employees, Johnson said.

The organization has four work centers across the state, as well as 35 group homes. It also has seven “discovery programs,” which emphasize volunteering rather than job skills. In one case, some of the people involved “adopted” a police dog at a department that had a limited budget for its K-9 unit.

“I’ll walk in, and there’ll be something baking that smells really good,” Johnson said. “And it’s doggy treats.”

He added, “I don’t eat them.”

Those involved with the discovery programs also work at food pantries or hold fundraisers.

“We have oodles of those types of projects,” Johnson said.

The organization also has a community living program, which helps adults with disabilities who want to live on their own. Genesis Development employees visit them as needed — sometimes just once a month to help with balancing a checkbook, and sometimes five times a day to assist with medication or cooking.

The company has grown over the years. In 1997, its budget was $1.3 million, and it had 35 employees and served 100 people. This past year, its budget was $15.5 million, and it had 433 staff members and served 2,143 people.

Those who want to support Genesis Development can send donations to P.O. Box 438, Jefferson, IA, 50129, visit the office at 401 W. McKinley St. in Jefferson or call 515-386-3017.

Although the organization has many moving parts, one mission ties them together, Johnson said: Creating opportunities for people with disabilities — vocational and otherwise.

“We value work,” Johnson said. “We believe everyone values work. It not only brings in an income, but it helps define the individual. … People we work with are defined by their disabilities. Once they get to work, it’s not that their disability is less noticeable, but it’s ignored.”

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