November 25, 2003 11:00 pm
ALL BARGAINS: Kris Silver, right, manager of the All Bargain Center in La Grande, helps Lindsay Stephens learn how to price merchandise. Stephens is a New Day Enterprises client and will be working in the store.  (The Observer/LAURA MACKIE-HANCOCK).
ALL BARGAINS: Kris Silver, right, manager of the All Bargain Center in La Grande, helps Lindsay Stephens learn how to price merchandise. Stephens is a New Day Enterprises client and will be working in the store. (The Observer/LAURA MACKIE-HANCOCK).

By Bill Rautenstrauch

Observer Staff Writer

Zee Koza has a degree in psychology. But she loves business.

And maybe that's why New Day Enterprises is more — much more — than a basic social service agency for the developmentally disabled.

"New Day is evolving to give people choices in what they do. We really believe people should have the power to make those choices," Koza, New Day executive director, said.

The La Grande-based non-profit agency, with main offices on Washington Street and a work center on North Depot Street, provides services for about 80 developmentally disabled adults from throughout Union County.

Its 90 staff members operate three group homes including one for the medically fragile, an employment program, a senior program, and a vocational training program.

But by no means is that all. New Day puts its clients to work in a number of self-sustaining businesses as well.

"We love to have our people employed, paying taxes and being a part of the community," said Koza, an Eastern Oregon State College graduate who has been with New Day 21 years.

New Day took its first foray into the world of business back in the early 1990s, a time when the agency had about 50 clients.

Koza heard about a California agency similar to New Day that had successfully built a casket making business. She decided to investigate.

"We went down there and looked at it, and we thought ‘We can do this.' So we applied for and got a grant from the state economic development department," Koza said.

"We were the first non-profit in Oregon to get a grant from state lottery funds."

Thus was born Blue Mountain Caskets, destined to become a New Day staple.

A shop was set up, complete with woodworking equipment and multi-needle sewing machines for sewing the caskets' cloth interiors. Guided by staff members, clients went to work.

Turning out a quality product wasn't as difficult as convincing the community that New Day had a good idea, said Koza.

"Making the caskets was no more difficult than any other kind of work. What was hard was convincing economic development people that our clients are workers," she said.

Ultimately, the business succeeded. The key, Koza said, was for the organization to learn how to work within its limitations.

"In a business like that, you look for a niche," Koza said. "We knew our niche had to be lower end. The caskets we make are very simple."

Koza said New Day sells about 200 caskets a month, including a number of special units that are used in cremations.

"We always have some caskets made ahead," Koza said.

A spinoff operation for New Day is a confidential document destruction service, she noted.

Paper shredded by clients for local attorneys, accountants and doctors, is used to line the caskets.

"The joke around here is that we bury people's secrets," Koza said.

Another major business venture for New Day is Apple Tree Embroidery, which specializes in sewing names and logos on clothing articles.

The business was originally owned by Barbara Hicks, wife of New Day board member Graham Hicks.

"She wanted to quit, but she also wanted to turn the business over to someone who would continue turning out a quality product," Koza said. She added that Hicks sold the business at a price New Day could afford.

The embroidery business utilizes a computerized sewing machine which Koza calls "very fancy."

Sports teams needing logos on shirts and caps make up a major portion of Apple Tree's customer base, she said. She added that there is also a market for articles embroidered with the names of businesses.

New Day clients are involved in other sewing-related services, including the manufacture of athletic shorts for state prisoners, and Nomex shorts for wildland firefighters, Koza said.

Recently, New Day started its third major business operation, the All Bargain Center on Adams Avenue in downtown La Grande.

The store sells new and second-hand merchandise ranging from knickknacks to clothes to home furnishings.

If all goes well, the store will soon be a seller of Boy Scout-related equipment, including uniforms and patches, Koza said.

"We're going through the initial steps. If things work out, we'll be a certified provider."

Koza, like the businesswoman she is at heart, believes location is everything when it comes to the bargain center.

"We wanted to be a part of downtown," she said. "We also want ABC to be a place where we can showcase our clients at work."

She said that eventually a window will be built into the back wall of the store to reveal an intake center where clients will refurbish used merchandise donated by the community.

"It's much more impressive when our people can be seen at work," Koza said.

She added, "Cleanliness is one of the things you'll notice about our store. All the clothing is cleaned and ironed — and shoes are disinfected — before it goes up for sale.

"In other words, we turn donations into vocations. This gets people working, and when they're working, they have self confidence."

New Day clients have varying skill levels and abilities, though the agency's definition of "developmentally disabled" is clear cut.

Koza said New Day clients have IQs no higher than 70. The onset of their disabilities will have occurred before the age of 22 and will continue for the rest of their lives.

Current New Day clients range in age from 18 to 80, said Koza. Some of them have jobs in the community, and one owns his own business.

Those who are employed in New Day's businesses earn wages based on productivity.

A minimum wage-based formula defines what a non-disabled person would produce; clients are paid according to what percentage of that amount they turn out.

New Day gets much of its funding from the state Mental Health Division. Money for business startups comes from the agency's budget and from grants.

"Our budget isn't very much, but we can usually attract enough grants to get a business going," Koza said.

Most of the money made in the businesses goes back to the clients in the form of wages. Some of it, however, becomes seed money for other business ventures.

Koza, 51, said she hopes to help start two or three more New Day businesses before she retires.

"I'm the kind of person who sees the glass as half full. I like to see cookies served with it, too," she said.