10/25/06 — Berry Towne Gifts is chance to create handmade crafts

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Berry Towne Gifts is chance to create handmade crafts

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 25, 2006 1:49 PM

Berry Towne Gifts, located in the middle of the O'Berry Center campus, might be one of the best-kept secrets in Wayne County.

Each year, more residents discover the combination gift shop and studio.

What they might not realize, though, is that the center is more than a cluster of group homes serving the needs of people with physical and mental challenges. Those same 300 men and women with developmental disabilities are also afforded the chance to engage in meaningful jobs.

"Work is a vital and important part of every person's life, " said Carolyn Davis, director of vocational and educational services. Personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment is just as important to those individuals who live at O'Berry, she said.

An estimated 125 people participate in the array of artisan programs by skill level. The programs are self-supporting, and individuals are compensated for the work they do.

The most popular areas of employment are pottery, wood-working and "sweet treats," all of which are regularly featured at Berry Towne.

In recent months, sales have expanded to include an online store, with the addition of the Web site www.berrytownecrafts.com.

"By adding online shopping, we have expanded our opportunity to sell our products worldwide," said Barbara Doerter, who manages the vocational program.

By Nature Soap is one of the main enterprises added in the last year that provides jobs at O'Berry. The soapworks produces a line of handmade organic soaps, lotions, butters and balms.

All of the products use the highest quality of oils, butters, botanicals and essential oils from around the world, said Phyllis Ezzell, soapworks manager.

"We search the world to find only the best, pure certified organic ingredients," she said. "They cost substantially more but, because our mission is to provide quality jobs not large profits, we can still offer our products at very competitive prices."

The local business also provides an opportunity for the O'Berry individuals to be productive and elevate expectations.

"We built this on a mentor approach - hand and hand, with our staff working with individuals who live here," Ms. Doerter said.

With tasks adapted to the skill level of each individual, the jobs are structured unlike other companies. There is not the same urgency to produce mass quantities of products. Instead, the goal is to create a sense of satisfaction while turning out quality items.

Linda, for example, mixes ingredients for soap or lip balms under the watchful eye of Ms. Ezzell. After the soap is poured into molds, residents Chris, Paul and others begin the process of cutting the bars, grading the various soaps and packaging the products into individual containers. Mary and her co-workers complete the packaging process by labeling each product.

Each day, products being made can change, as do the jobs performed by the various individuals. The atmosphere has more the feel of an artist's studio than a factory production line.

The soapworks is only one of a dozen artisan programs O'Berry features. Others include pottery and woodworking studios, a custom printing shop specializing in notepads, and a specialty food program where a full service bakery makes decorated cakes, pies and other unique foods and candies.

"Our customers call in or stop by our store. We can design, bake and decorate an unlimited variety of cakes from everyday functions to gourmet specialty cakes," Ms. Davis said.

Not only do the products reflect traditional craft skills and methods, but the feel of being handmade from North Carolina, she added.

That is particularly significant in the area of pottery, which has strong roots in this state.

Jocelyn Jackson guides the pottery studio, which only uses native North Carolina clay.

"Our work is hand thrown on the potter's wheel, made on our slab rollers. We use all the traditional methods of throwing, coil pottery and slab building," she said. After drying, the clay is fired in the studio's kiln to 1850 degrees for the first, or bisque, firing.

Artisans then apply glaze and items are fired to the final temperature of 2350 degrees, producing durable high quality stoneware.

Mentors guide the creative process, Ms. Jackson said.

"We use techniques that are specific to the needs of each individual. With some who work on the wheel, we use a hand over hand process that assists them in forming the item," she said.

Items produced in the pottery studio range from strong sturdy plates, mugs, bowls and vases, to character jugs and pots.

"We were especially pleased to be asked by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to provide lamps and other pieces of pottery for the main reception area at the division headquarters in Raleigh," she said.

Such accomplishments by the individuals who live at O'Berry as well as their mentors have been exciting for the center, said its director, Dr. Frank Farrell.

"As our businesses have expanded, we identified the need to provide an enhanced shopping experience to better showcase the exceptional work of our individuals," he said.

The success has prompted plans toward opening a new retail shop early next year, he said. Berry Towne Crafts is scheduled to be transported to an adjacent piece of property, where an old-fashioned log cabin will be constructed to keep with the theme of offering traditional crafts.

The cabin will provide more than 1,500 square feet of display space and is projected to be constructed by spring 2007. The project is being funded by proceeds generated from artisan businesses that contribute to Berry Towne's success.

Local sales as well as those now being generated via the Internet have made officials at O'Berry proud.

"We are so pleased with the support we get from the public, both in our store and those shopping online," Farrell said. "When people buy our products, they are ensuring our continued success and enabling us to expand opportunities to the people we serve."