‘Many Pathways, One Mission’ Opportunity Center marks 50 years

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Every year, Kenny Bradley makes a new vehicle. This year’s model is a car that is quite sturdy. “I’d love to get it up on wheels,” said Angie Engrav, program director at the Opportunity Center. (Photos by Caitlin Bittner)

Jackie Valentine checks, counts and boxes “84s,” tough scouring pads, for 3M as part of her job.

Brett Kramer puts boxes onto the conveyer belt. When they come out on the other side, they are shrinkwrapped together.

By Caitlin Bittner

This year, the Opportunity Center in Prairie du Chien is celebrating its 50th anniversary in business, a feat that executive director Pam Ritchie knows could not have been reached without the support of Prairie du Chien and surrounding areas. “Everyone who works here is an independent worker the same as anyone else. All they want is a chance to be normal. What’s more normal than getting up to go to work every [week] day?” said Ritchie.

The Prairie du Chien Opportunity Center serves all of Crawford County and part of Grant County. “We run seven bus routes a day. Some people spend two hours on the bus just to come to work,” commented Ritchie.

A lot of traffic comes and goes from the Opportunity Center as it receives a truck each morning and puts in an order nearly every afternoon for whatever they’ll need the next day.

When someone thinks of the Opportunity Center, they may only remember the manufacturing and packing parts, but they are forgetting about Sharing Spaces Kitchen and the Opportunity’s Blooming Greenhouse.

At Sharing Spaces Kitchen, workers provide co-packing and catering. They make all their own baked goods and work with places like the Kickapoo Exchange, Shihata’s Apple Orchard, the Local Oven, Driftless Edibles and many more, to provide enjoyable products. While Sharing Spaces is now operating smoothly and at full capacity, the new additions to the Opportunity’s Blooming Greenhouse are still progressing.

“We’re going to fully open our two new greenhouses at our open house and 50th anniversary celebration,” said Ritchie, who noted that the festivities will be held on Saturday, Aug. 29.

“What we discovered when we opened the other greenhouse was that it was not enough,” commented Ritchie, who said that in order for the greenhouse to be what they’d imagined, they would need more space.

The new greenhouses will be entirely run on solar energy and be very energy efficient. “Everything in here is state-of-the-art. It’s even got a shade cloth that opens and closes based on sunlight and heat,” said Ritchie.

The first product grown in the greenhouse was strawberries, followed by basil, tomatoes and cucumber.

Whatever a person’s interest is, the Opportunity Center prides itself on being able to find something they like to do. Sometimes, they even have to go out into the community to find job placement. “To think, when it all started, it was just a little organization in a basement,” remarked Ritchie. “Now, it’s really turned into a complex business dedicated to helping people find their niche in life.”

Since Ruth Deslock started the organization in 1965, the Opportunity Center has grown to include many employees, described as superhuman for the tasks they make happen. Of those people, program director Angie Engrav, job developer Kim Thompson and community services coordinator Kari Kossman are some of the best.

For her job, Engrav supervises all of the Opportunity Center’s programs, studies rules and regulations given by the government and tries to help employees moved to community-based settings.

Likewise, Thompson speaks with members of the community and businesses to facilitate business and worker needs.

Kossman is in charge of getting groups out into the community. She has worked with businesses like the Bargain Boutique, 3M, the Shopping News and Pete’s Hamburger Stand to connect them with employees and services they need.
“Our clients want to work every day,” said Engrav. “We have programs where we teach them soft skills like how to fill out job applications—we call it ‘skills to pay the bills’—amongst other things for surviving the first 90 days [of work].”

Aside from work, the Opportunity Center also assists its clients in the social aspects of life.

“We work, but we have fun too. We go swimming, to Brewers baseball games, out for picnics, take walks and enjoy the outdoors,” added Kossman.

Speaking of the longevity of the business and the reasons it has lasted for so many years, there were many responses, the most common being community atmosphere and support.

“We are successful because of our employees’ dedication to the facilities,” commented Engrav.

“There’s a sense of pride knowing that the community has opened its arms [to us],” said Ritchie. “Many other organizations like this have struggled, and without the community behind us, we would not be able to do it. The people who are here also remind you why you do this. The people want to be here and their huge smiles remind you of that every day.”

In order to mark the 50 year anniversary, the Opportunity Center will hold an open house and carnival on Saturday, Aug. 29, from 1 to 4 p.m. The event will take place at 730 N. State St. Games, prizes, face painting, food, bounce houses, Euro jump and live music will all be available. Admission to the event is free and everyone is invited.

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