By Heather Wimmer
On the production floor at Southeast Enterprises, a middle-aged woman named Sharon meticulously applies hang tags to a small bag of Mama Socorro’s salsa mix. She places it in a bin with others that will eventually be delivered to local grocery stores. Susan has been taking pride in this kind of work since she began working at Southeast Enterprises in 1977.
Southeast Enterprises is a not-for-profit business that employs adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Jobs at the facility usually include package assembly, labeling, shrink wrapping, collating and the like for a variety of businesses, big and small. Some jobs are offsite, such as custodial work, light landscaping and plant care and package assembly. About 18 staff members supervise the workers, also called associates, both onsite and offsite. These services have been of great value to companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Hallmark and Overland Park-based Mama Socorro’s for many years.
“We try to meet our co-workers where they are and help them develop into great employees,” says CEO Lauren Hall.
Hall has come to see Southeast Enterprises as a ladder of sorts. Many associates come from high school special education programs or Jackson County vocational rehab services. Some have found Southeast Enterprises themselves and choose to work there for the supportive environment. Over time, associates gain skills and responsibility. Some are given lead associate positions, while some may be considered as possible hires for supervisory staff. Others have entered the competitive labor force.
One associate, Mark, who packages sets of latex gloves for safety kits distributed by Certified Safety Manufacturing, met his wife Nikki at Southeast Enterprises. Mark and Nikki now live in their own apartment, thanks to recent wage raises that Hall helped implement during her three-year tenure there. New contracts with businesses have allowed more than 300% wage raises for some associates, which especially helps those who are living on their own.
“We actually emerged from the pandemic in a much better position than when it started,” Hall says. Associates returned to work after a brief hiatus in March and April of 2020. Well-trained associates now package COVID test kits and other essential safety items.
Asked about the future, Hall says she would like to see more contracts with local businesses and a greater reach for their offsite program. Her vision also includes expanding facilities, making associates more valuable to businesses by providing learned IT skills and attracting volunteers who can read to or supervise associates during their lunch hour.
Southeast Enterprises receives some funding and oversight from the state of Missouri under the board of education, and also from Jackson County, which owns the current facility located at 6701 Booth St. in Raytown.