February 22, 2020

Elbows deep in dirt, dust to beautify town

Arenac Opportunities program adds color in Standish while teaching life skills


STANDISH — A local nonprofit organization utilized $5,000 in grant funding from Bay-Arenac Community Foundation to beautify Standish, by providing free or reasonably priced planter boxes to businesses along US-23.

Arenac Opportunities, Inc., which provides services to adults with special needs or disabilities, is wrapping up its pilot beautification program and looking to grow it for next year.

“There has been a lot of changes (in the industry) in the past two years,” Director Karen Collins said. “We had to create a new program that was not on-site. The federal and state (governments) are changing and they want us to be more involved in the community.”

Collins said AOI was previously a sheltered workshop, providing its clients the opportunity to work and be compensated for the work.

“Everyone came here, worked and was paid by the piece,” she said. “When they said we needed to go out in the community and shut down our workshop, we had to find skills.”

Through the community foundation, Collins wrote a grant that the group was awarded, which provided the organization the start-up capital to launch the program.

“Mainly, we were trying to help beautify the US-23 corridor through town to make it more inviting for out-of-towners to visit,” Collins said.

The grant was used to purchase materials for a planter box project, which the organization’s clients — or consumers — built from the ground up.

The pilot program offered prospective businesses the opportunity to acquire one free planter box, complete with soil and flowers. Businesses also had the option of purchasing additional planter boxes for prices ranging from $25-$40 depending on size.

Collins said the community was receptive to the program, with 20 businesses responding for the free box and several ordering an additional box.

“We have built over 30 small boxes and about 11 of the bigger size,” she said.

The skill-building aspect of the organization is a prerequisite to participate in the employment program the organization offers.

“We also have a community living service program and those individuals get out in the community and socialize,” Collins said. “Generally they have fun. It is for individuals that are unable to get out on their own in the community; they are limited in their ability to do that, so we do that for them.”

She said the community living service can range from taking individuals to McDonald’s or out for a cup of coffee to shopping.

All the programs offered by AOI, including its planter box program, are part of the organization’s mission to provide life skills to its clients by providing vocational training that can open up employment opportunities.

“We are committed in helping individuals achieve their goals in becoming self-sufficient and enhancing their quality of life by finding competitive employment in their community that focuses on their preferences and strengths,” the organization’s mission statement reads. “Our philosophy is to give everyone the same opportunity when searching, finding and retaining their employment within our community.”

Collins said many of the clients at AOI have been there for a long time, with several learning skills or working through the organization since it was formed in the early ’70s. Overall, AOI offers services to more than 60 individuals, including the estimated 30 individuals who have been involved in the planter box project.

“Some of the consumers have been coming to the AOI since the beginning,” she said. “Of course we have some newer consumers that have been referred to us throughout the year.”

It isn’t only the clients that have stuck with the operation. Collins said several employees have worked there for more than 20 years, including 28-year veteran and skilled building instructor Diane Madigan.

“We have been here for years,” Madigan said. “It is a great place to be and we all enjoy it.”

While the people who participate in Arenac Opportunities are referred to as consumers, Collins said they are more than that.

“They are people,” she said. “They are a very important part of our community. If anybody knows our people they know they are loving, kind and want to help. They are more than just consumers to us, they are our family.”

Although Collins hasn’t been at AOI for a long duration, she said she has been in the industry for more than 20 years and wouldn’t have it any other way.

The majority of the operating funding for the organization comes from the two industries it serves. AOI receives its primary funding through contracts with mental health providers such as Bay-Arenac Behavioral Health and Central Michigan Community Mental Health. Meanwhile, its transportation arm receives its funding from contracts with intermediate school districts and Head Start programs.

However, Collins said the specific funding has limitations that prevent use for capital improvement items such as new buses or repair of its aged parking lot.

The business community has been very supportive of the program, according to Collins. She said the lumber and materials to construct the boxes were purchased from Sequin Lumber, which also helped the organization figure out how much materials were needed. The group also was contacted by Red’s Greenhouse in Sterling, which provided greenhouse space and knowledge to help grow the flowers for the planter boxes.

“(The owner) let us use part of her greenhouse and she taught our consumers what they needed,” Collins said. “We also went to the Standish high school greenhouse, which is handicap-accessible, which helped our handicapped individuals.”

Another group that offered support was the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardeners, which helped with the proper soil mixture needed for the elevated growing boxes.

While this year’s planting season is drawing to a close, Collins said the group will still sell boxes by order and will be working toward next year’s season.

“We would like to grow this,” Collins said. “That would be our ideal thing. We have seen a lot of people that have been saying they would like one.”

For the remainder of the season, the group intends to maintain the current boxes and Collins hopes to decorate the existing boxes for the Fourth of July and fall season.

Collins said it would be helpful if community members reach out with ideas of other areas for the group to be involved in.

“Our consumers are the most important part,” she said. “This is why we created it, to get them out in the community and raise community awareness and collaboration so people know what we do at AOI.”

To contact Collins or the organization with ideas, call 989-846-4441.


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Noticed these boxes as I drove through Standish this week. They are a wonderful addition to the town. Wonder if you will be allowing the public to order them?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 | Report this
Karen Collins

Sure! We are very open for people to give us a call to build some for the public! We won't be able to provide the flowers at this time, but the boxes are priced as the following: 24"x18.5"x24" = $25.00 48"x18.5"x24" = $45.00. They are made out of pressure treated wood and should last for many years! Please call us for your order! 989-846-4441.

Thursday, June 21, 2018 | Report this

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