Riverside Industries awarded for efforts
By MAGGIE SHADER Staff Writer

[ This story appeared in 'The Summit' - A weekly section for Easthampton, Southampton and Westhampton ]
[ Originally published on: Thursday, October 20, 2005 ]

EASTHAMPTON – Behind the brick facade and quiet windows at One Cottage Street is a thriving nonprofit organization that encourages and/or enables mentally or physically handicapped people to seek employment, and self-sufficiency and realization.

In the past, Riverside Industries Inc.’s dedicated work was perhaps the city’s best-kept secret. Meanwhile, the organization continued to grow and gain recognition within the nonprofit community.

Today, the 37-year-old nonprofit serves over 1,000 people, and is now a recognizable asset and member of the growing Easthampton community.

This year, Riverside received the highest certificate given to a human service agency in Western Massachusetts for the fifth consecutive time in 10 years. The Department of Mental Retardation’s office of Quality Management, Quality Enhancement Division bestows the certificate every two years after an evaluation of the organization’s facilities and programs that takes close to a month to complete.

Part of the Quality Enhancement Division’s survey summary read: ”It (Riverside) has developed a comprehensive system to insure the safety and personal well-being of individuals across all settings …”

The international Rehabilitation Accreditation Commission also awarded Riverside its highest level of accreditation for the ninth consecutive time. In its report summary the commission wrote: ”The organization finds and implements creative out-of-the-box approaches for solving problems and enhancing supports to the persons served.”

Charlene Gentes, director of community relations, and general manager Deborah Thomas agree that they are grateful for the recognition of the services Riverside provides, but, more important, that they are open to having Riverside evaluated because the nonprofit can only gain from it. Despite the many years of awards for excellence, neither Gentes nor Thomas thinks Riverside can rest on its laurels.

”There’s always something, there’s always room to improve,” said Thomas. ”We want to stay progressive, we want to stay alive.”

Some of the programs offered at Riverside include an extensive job placement program as well as on-site employment.

According to its Web site, since 1980 Riverside has placed 241 people in jobs that ranged from supportive to competitive employment. Employers include Big Es Supermarket in Easthampton and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Riverside’s on-site jobs include assembly and packaging for businesses such as the Yankee Candle Co. and Hasbro Games.

On a recent day in the work room, Riverside clients on the job put together green plastic parts for the game Hungry Hippo, and filled small jars with glue that arrives by the barrel.

All the products are checked for quality after assembly and before they are shipped out to companies.

Another opportunity for employment at Riverside is Tucson & Savannah’s Cafe, at the heart of the old factory building on Cottage Street. Cafe customers are mainly drawn from the artist community there and other tenants of the building, as well as Riverside clients and employees. However, the eatery’s doors are open to everyone. The cafe features equipment designed to enable Riverside clients to more freely work and eat at the cafe. At the counter is a computer touch screen that displays pictures of the day’s menu that, when selected, order the item for the customer.

In addition to a slew of other services, Riverside provides clients with an expansive rehabilitation program that includes occupational, physical and speech therapy.

”The focus of what we do is therapeutic,” said Amy Gleason, director of the Day Habilitation Center.

She added that her staff seeks to create goals that are meaningful to the clients’ lives, and fit with their dreams and aspirations. A key theme of the work is promoting and working toward independence by developing practical skills., Gleason said.

”We’ve got to have enough tools in our bags to help people reach their goals and dreams,” Gentes said. ”It’s an exploration that brings that about, so Riverside has to be prepared to offer a variety of resources.”