The walls of the Gordon County Sheriff’s Office are decorated with photos of old employees, historic town buildings, artistic renderings of well wishes from the community, and now — thanks to a donation from local nonprofit Blake’s House of Independence — a handmade, wood pallet art piece depicting the law enforcement flag and the silhouette of a kneeling officer.

Gordon County Sheriff Mike Ralston accepted the piece from Teresa Hall, the artist behind the work and the product coordinator at Blake’s House, and Blake’s House Classroom Instructor Shelley Barton.

“I painted this and then, once I saw it, knew it was something we had to give our law enforcement. We wanted to show our appreciation and say thank you for everything that they do to keep this community safe,” Hall said.

Barton and Hall, who have worked in design for more than three decades, regularly use their art as a way of giving back to the local community. It is part of their work at Blake’s House of Independence, a nonprofit that assists adults with special needs integrate into the workforce and develop social skills through art classes.

“We go down to Home Depot and take their scrap wood to use there. Shelley and I go down and dig for pallet wood to use from the Fountain place down on 41. They let us have it for free,” Hall said. “This is a total nonprofit organization. We get things donated, make art out of it on our own and with our clients, and then turn around and sell that art. The money goes directly back into what we do.”

Clients participate in every step of that process, from creating art pieces to selling them. Barton teaches them how to manage money, sell pieces and even shows them how to use the nonprofit’s printing machine to make specialized T-shirts.

Blake’s House was created by Jamita Martin in 2013 after her husband passed away. Her son Travis is severely and developmentally delayed on the Autism spectrum, and she worried about what would happen to him if she were unable to be there. She wanted to give him the ability to succeed on his own.

And so Blake’s House was born.

Since then, Martin has seen her son, whose middle name is Blake, and others with similar abilities learn new skills that prepare them for the workforce and develop stronger peer relationships.

“Travis is much more independent. I feel very comfortable that he’s going to be totally OK,” Martin told The Calhoun Times shortly after Blake’s House Calhoun location opened. “He warms food in the microwave, calls me and he’s a hard worker.”

Art classes are just one small piece of what clients can expect from Blake’s House. The nonprofit also offers employment support, resume advice, job placement and training, training in social adjustment techniques, and transportation to and from work. Many individuals who have gone through the Blake’s House program find work at places like Kroger, McDonald’s, Ruby Tuesdays, the Atlanta Braves stadium and local restaurants.

“The clients we see are usually very capable but aren’t always good about advocating for themselves. They’re often a little more cautious and shy,” Barton said. “So, we just help them get started and work with management on a job site to say, ‘This is an individual with special needs. They may need a little help with things from time to time.’ Overall, they’re good employees. They want to be at work. They like to work. They just need a little bit of assistance.”

Barton said that clients, who must be 18 or older, are referred to Blake’s House by the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA), as well as the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

To be referred, a potential client must first meet with a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to complete an application and discuss their employment goals, how their disability affects their ability to work, and determine the services that are necessary to reach their employment goals. GVRA then chooses which organization is right for them.

“What we recommend is this: If you want to come here, ask to be placed here. There are several different places they can be sent from that office, depending on who specializes in what they need,” Barton said. “We tend to work with higher functioning clients in our office. They’re really capable of doing things on their own and just need a little bit of tending. They can do a lot more than they think they can.”

Parents of students who will soon be 18 or older can also speak with their school counselor about getting them assessed by GVRA and recommended for participation in the program after high school.

“I recommend doing it that way so that clients can get in as soon as they’re out of school. Coming here helps them keep a schedule and make a habit of getting out of the house and doing something productive,” Hall said.

Blake’s House in Calhoun is located at 100 Richardson Road. Art, which funds the nonprofit, can be purchased on site. The Marietta office is located at 1135 Shallowford Road. Potential clients interested in participating in programs at either location can contact GVRA at 1-844-232-1998.

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