Even on the worst of days, Fred Mellema can still walk through the staging area in his Grand Rapids finishing shop and get a smile on his face. That's where he can usually spot a worker named Jimmy, who has just racked another 100 or so items to be coated. Born with a cognitive impairment, Jimmy gives Mellema a high-five and tells him all about his day, right down to the last detail of how he racked each item carefully to ensure a perfect finish down the line.
"Jimmy's a rock star," Mellema says. "Always a smile on his face. Always so proud of the work he does. Always with a great attitude. How can you beat that?"
The answer is you can't, which is why the scenery at Mellema's DECC Co. Inc. hasn't changed in 40 years, ever since Mellema's dad and uncle started working with the Hope Network to place people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the plant to give them jobs and a sense of self of worth.
The Hope Network is a non-profit Christian organization founded in 1963 to help empower people with disabilities—or disadvantages—to achieve their highest level of independence. The organization works with 180 locations and serves 20,000-plus people in Michigan, but probably none are more happy than those at DECC.
Mellema is happy, too. He doesn't directly employ the Hope Network crews, but pays a fee when they bring the 40 or so people in to work alongside DECC's regular staff of 30.
"It really is a great program, and we enjoy having the Hope Network people here because they all do very good quality work," Mellema says. "We used to have college kids come in and rack things, but they got bored with it pretty quickly."
DECC started bringing in employees with intellectual disabilities long before the Hope program. A neighbor of Mellema's Uncle Everett had a son who needed a job, and couldn't find one because of his disability. The young man's father offered to pay Everett if he could work in the shop one day. "But he did a good job," Mellema says, "so we hired him. It's grown from there."
The DECC staff work around any scheduling problems that arise when there is extra work and the Hope Network clients have to leave to catch a bus home. And Mellema and his supervisors watch carefully to make sure racking is done to specification.
"They know that if it needs 100 items racked, 99 won't do," he says. "But that's never really been a problem. The clients take great pride in what they do, and they do it very well."
Things have gone well for Mellema and DECC since he took over operation five years ago. The company has invested heavily in new equipment and in people, boasting four staff engineers, which is unusually high, but has helped them win some big contracts, including one from Caterpillar. The company saw sales jump 53% to $6 million a year from 2006 to 2007, with expectations that it will hit $10 million this year, despite the slumping economy.
Still, Mellema is most happy about what his company brings to the nearby community, helping it place workers who might not normally have the opportunity to get up in the morning and go to work.
Recently, a movie company rented out a nearby lot that Mellema owns to shoot a film starring actor Ben Stiller and others. They paid Mellema $250 a day to use the empty lot, but he didn't pocket the extra change.
Instead, DECC threw a pizza party for its Hope Network employees and the other company staff. Everyone had a great time, enjoying the food and drinks, laughing and cutting up.
But then it was promptly back to work. Jimmy, after all, had work to do, with a smile on his face, of course.