Michael Eaton made several trips to the popcorn machine Friday to load up on his favorite snack.
He earned the privilege by completing the morning activity and doing chores such as wiping tables or sweeping the floor.
"He gets to make the popcorn and has to share it with the others," said Samira Mota, instructor for the group of developmentally disabled adults at the Howard Training Center in Ceres.
Eaton ate most of the popcorn but did give a juice drink to his friend, Michael, who was in a wheelchair looking at pictures.
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As of April 30, Eaton and his friends no longer will attend the Skills Program at the Howard Training Center, a nonprofit organization that runs nine other programs for adults with moderate to severe disabilities.
It is one of the oldest training programs at the Howard center, but officials say it has to close after losing $190,000 to a cut in state reimbursements.
Thirty-seven disabled adults will have to be placed with other services, although there is no guarantee other centers will have openings. The Howard center is laying off nine full-time employees.
Claudia Miller, executive director of the Howard Training Center, said the Skills Program closure is a tremendous loss for the center and the families that rely on the service.
Her staff is working with the Valley Mountain Regional Center to refer the participants to other services. Valley Mountain is one of the seven regional centers in California that administer services for disabled adults.
Other training programs at the Howard center will continue to operate at full capacity, she said. More than 300 disabled adults participate in activities each day, such as preparing meals for seniors, training for employment in the community or doing landscaping.
Miller said the Skills Program regularly lost about $145,000 a year, but was kept alive through fund-raising and programs that garner higher reimbursements from the state. From 2006 to 2008, reimbursement for the Skills Program was frozen at $43.53 per person per day; it was reduced by 3 percent in February.
The daily rates for other programs at the center range from $51 to $68 per individual.
Many adults in the Skills Program need assistance with eating, dressing and using the bathroom and receive additional guidance for daily living. Along with severe developmental disabilities, some of the participants have medical problems such as seizure disorders, cerebral palsy or asthma.
Finding other services
Officials said about a dozen participants can transfer to other programs at the Howard Training Center. The other adults will be evaluated for placement with organizations that offer the appropriate services.
The biggest challenge will be finding services for those with the most severe disabilities, Miller said.
"One family member told me if she can't find a program, her brother can no longer stay with them because they have to work," Miller said. "Some of the participants have been coming here for 20 years or more."
Margaret Gill of Ripon said she wasn't happy to hear the program was closing. Her 29-year-old daughter, Stacy, has cerebral palsy with limited movement from the neck down.
"We have gone to quite a few other places and checked them out, but they didn't feel like the right place for her," Gill said. "The people at the Howard center are nice and it is clean. Stacy liked it, and that was the most important thing."
The center will be losing employees such as Mota of Waterford. After working as an instructor for 4½ years, she is able to communicate with clients who can speak only a few words and she knows their personalities.
The participants, from cities in Stanislaus County and southern San Joaquin County, attend the program for 6½ hours per day, Monday to Friday. The staff teaches them simple tasks such as cleaning counters, washing their hands or working on their eating skills.
Gerald, a client since 1989, was given an award for learning nine signs for communicating with the staff. He uses the sign language to tell when he is happy, has pain or is grateful, Mota said.
"They do appreciate what you do for them," she said. "I am concerned about where they are going to go. I don't know who is going to be watching them."
More trouble ahead?
Dick Jacobs, Valley Mountain's executive director, said that meetings with families will be held to discuss other programs and services. Valley Mountain is checking to see if other centers have openings.
Because the state has frozen or reduced the reimbursements for programs serving the disabled, "I would suspect that, as time goes on, more and more programs will find themselves in a similar situation," Jacobs said.
The funding situation could get worse depending on the outcome of the May 19 ballot measures dealing with state budget reform and the extension of certain taxes, he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.