Two years after Atalissa, disabled workers continue to progress - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Two years after Atalissa, disabled workers continue to progress

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

More than two years have passed since the discovery of 21 disabled workers living in unsafe conditions in an Atalissa bunkhouse. They're now moving on with their lives, thanks to the help of a Waterloo organization.

In February 2009, the Department of Human Services found the men, some in their late 30's, others in their 70's, living in deplorable conditions. They were working for Henry's Turkey Service, a processing plant in West Liberty. That company is facing more than $1 million in state fines, and last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed another lawsuit. The EEOC is trying to recover two years worth of lost wages for the men.

DHS credits Exceptional Persons, Inc, based out of Waterloo, with helping the 21 men rebuild their lives. EPI's executive director Chris Sparks said, they're just doing their job -- the same way they do every day, with hundreds of other men, women, and children.

One of their latest success stories is Ian R., a 34 year old Waterloo man. Ian came to EPI a few months ago, after his life-long support structure, in essence, came crumbling down.

"I had my parents before. I relied on them a lot. And then my father just passed away last January, and my mom wants me to do things on my own more," he said.

Now, he owns his own car and works several days a week. Ian also enrolled in a few classes at Hawkeye Community College. His mother is extremely proud of his accomplishments. So are the staff members at EPI.

"I am just overjoyed when I hear someone like Ian talk about the exciting things happening in his life," said Sparks.

What is happening in Ian's life is much like what's happening for the men who came to Waterloo from Atalissa. More than two years ago, EPI essentially gave them a new life, after decades of living in deplorable conditions.

"We were taken aback," Sparks recalled. "I tell people, it's not really articulate, but it was a real gut-punch for us. And it made us really think how something like this could be happening just ninety minutes from us."

Like with Ian, EPI helped the men from Atalissa find homes, a place to work, and continue to offer them support. But Sparks notes, their actions aren't remarkable -- the men are.

"It really is a story of triumph, it is a story of optimism, it's a story of a resilient group of 21 people who overcame some very difficult times and experiences. And our part in that was so, mundane, so consistent, because it's what we do every day," he said.

For many EPI staff, the day they found the men in Atalissa is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. But they're hoping the men see it very differently.

"I hope it seems like a long time to them. I hope they remember the last couple years in a more prominent fashion than the 20 or 25 that went before that," Sparks added.

Of the original 21 men from Atalissa, 13 are still in Waterloo. Three are retired, and the others have part-time jobs or are receiving job skills training.

EPI offers many services, above and beyond helping people who have mental challenges. For more information on the organization, click here.

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