With main facilities in Mount Shasta and Yreka, changes are in the works as the private non-profit Opportunity Center approaches its 45th anniversary next year.

For more than four decades now, Siskiyou Opportunity Center has offered clients job training, access to living quarters, employment at its facilities and in the community, meaningful interaction with the community, and socialization.

With main facilities in Mount Shasta and Yreka, changes are in the works as the private non-profit Opportunity Center approaches its 45th anniversary next year.

Executive director Steve Rogers plans to retire in approximately one year, and a push from the outside is seeking to see clients placed in mainstream jobs and have all clients paid minimum wage.

The Opportunity Center was founded in 1970 when recently passed away Lois Listoe went looking for a program for her disabled son and found nothing. Gathering like-minded parents, Listoe garnered SOC’s first work contract, making marking stakes for highway crews.

SOC’s services now include a large part of the county’s recycling, including the city of Mount Shasta’s Blue Bag curbside pickup program, a highly technical woodshop, clerical services, bulk mailing, janitorial services and two gift shops stocked with goods made in the wood shop.

SOC provides life skills including employment preparation and assessment, personal vocational and adjustment services, and job placement.

Conditions for the clients include less than 70 IQ, cerebral palsy, autism, brain injury before age 18, and seizure disorders. “Anything that impairs the full development of the brain,” Rogers said.

Rogers said one of the most important aspects of SOC’s services is socialization with peers, but that can be a problem when it comes to mainstreaming clients.

“There is a push from well-meaning politicians and lawyers to move all clients from our protective environment at the Opportunity Center to normal jobs,” Rogers said. “We do support different skills and different environments as much as possible, but some clients, even those who could go, would feel isolated.”

Rogers said a few clients have tried mainstream jobs, but returned to work at the Center.

“A client could go to work outside the Center, but who would they talk to, who would their friends be? A very few live outside the group homes and a few drive their cars to work,” Rogers said. “We have had high functioning clients try it and come back to work at the facility. They felt very isolated. We’re proud when they move forward, and we’re here when they need us, but we support the right of clients to choose.”

Rogers said paying all clients minimum wage would create serious economic challenges.

“The government pays approximately 50 percent of the program we provide. The clients make up the difference with the services they provide,” Rogers said. “There is a potential change that would mandate minimum wage for all clients no matter their productivity. It could mean low functioning might not be able to come because some clients cannot rise above 30 percent productivity.”

Rogers praised the Center’s dedicated staff. He said, “The people who work here are not highly paid. They buy into our system and we don’t have a high turnover. We like to think of our program as a vocational school. The people who work here see the value of what we do.”

Rogers said he will be leaving the Center in a year and is hoping to make a smooth transition.

He said he wants to keep the job in-house and plans to work with the board on the transition “to develop leadership from inside the Center.”

A new program is in the works to train clients to do automobile maintenance in the old biomass building.

“Clients will learn to do basic auto servicing on the Center’s 22 vehicles. We would certify what they are qualified to work at car washes, oil change facilities and tire shops,” Rogers said.

Rogers cannot say enough about Listoe’s vision and what the Center has become since.

“There were services for our clients when they were in school but when they got out there was nothing for them. What were they going to do, sit home and watch television? They could get into trouble or wind up in jail,” Rogers said. “We provide a place to work that gives them dignity and self-worth, inclusion in the community and socialization with peers. We believe these people have worth. We expand their potential opportunities in life. They give a meaningful contribution to the community and the economy with their skills.”

For more information, visit the website at www.siskiyouoc.org.