Sign in Nezinscot Guild break room says it has paid over $1.75 million in wages to workers with
developmental disabilities over 30 years.

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TURNER — On a recent weekday a dozen workers were busy inside the packaging room of the Nezinscot Guild. Rock ‘n’ roll music played on the radio while employees counted and packed test vials for IDEXX Laboratories.

“I like working here, I enjoy working here,” said Rene Tassinari of Lewiston, who is developmentally disabled. Having a job is much better than not, he said.

“Some days I don’t feel like getting out of bed, but this gets me out of the house,” he said, adding it provides some needed space between him and his mother. At other places he’s worked, “I had to have a job coach,” Tassinari said. “Here I don’t need one. I like it.”

In the woodwork room, boxes were being assembled. One worker named George, also developmentally disabled, assembled wooden boxes using glue and a staple gun while Executive Director Dan O’Shea looked on.

Building boxes calls for good coordination. O’Shea said he’s been
surprised at who can achieve what. “You can never predict who’s going to be good at something. We give everybody a shot at every job.” 

Nezinscot Guild is a small business that does three things:

• It manufacturers wooden crate boxes used in food gift packages for companies in Maine and across the country, including Bert’s Bees, Ray’s Mustard, Dean and Deluca.

• It provides packaging and assembly services. IDEXX is one of its biggest clients, as is J.S. McCarthy printing company in Augusta.

• It provides jobs for people with developmental disabilities, people who might not otherwise be employed.

Nezinscot employs 20 people with disabilities plus others without. The number depends on the need. In the fall its payroll rose to 45.

Nezinscot has its roots in the closing of Pineland in New Gloucester in the mid-1970s. “The state was sued for not providing community integration and activity for people out of Pineland,” O’Shea said. The state was mandated to go into communities and ask people to create activities.

“We started in Turner Village and immediately took on a work focus, something that was really lacking,” O’Shea said. “We took on a small business model, and have been developing that for the last 31 years.”

When Nezinscot first started, 100 percent of its funding came from state dollars. “Originally we were hoping for 50 percent self-sufficiency, to have our business cover 50 percent of the operation. We saw the need to generate our own money to grow.”

They’ve achieved that, and more.

In 2006-07 they received $176,000 a year from the state, which was 30 percent of their budget. Then their state funding was cut from $176,000 to $140,000.

As the tough economy continued to slow tax money, Nezinscot lost more state money, from $140,000 to $50,000. In July it lost the remaining $50,000 of state money.

“We’re now zero,” O’Shea said. “It’s difficult to rebound from that, but since the early days, our goal has been self sufficiency, so we had a lot of things in place geared toward increasing our business presence.”

Their mainstay is the wooden boxes used for gift box sets which enhances the presentation of jams and jellies, mustard and other high-end food. “There continues to be that demand,” O’Shea said.

The slumping economy did slow sales, but the company still produced 20,000 boxes from July through December.

“We have a niche. We’re nationally known,” O’Shea said.

And the company is working on developing new wholesale products. Their best is the Maine Lobster Kit, lobster eating tools, lobster crackers and picks, in a decorative wooden box. It’s small enough to fit into drawers, neatly storing lobster tools until the next feed.

“It’s a very hot item,” O’Shea said. “We’ve sold hundreds of these since we put them out. We started marketing them last spring.” They’ve had some help from companies. “Downeast magazine gave us free advertising. Supreme Lobster in Lewiston put our link on their Web page to help us out. They’re responsible for a lot of our sales.”

The business has an immediate goal of finding more customers and building more contributions from individuals and organizations “because we’re on our own,” O’Shea said. “Developing the lobster kit was a deliberate effort to replace lost state dollars,” O’Shea said. “We had to come up with an answer.”

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