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Rainier School workers turn out yard products

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By Jessica Keller, The Courier-Herald

Five days of the week, working in almost assembly-line style in their bright, cheerful stone craft shop at the center of Rainier School in Buckley, residents of the school can be found turning out new stone products for spring gardens.

First cement from a 60-pound bag is measured and mixed with water in a cement mixer to make liquid concrete.

A worker, with the supervision of a staff member, then pours the cement into a mold, one of many different shapes, sizes and designs to choose from, using a measuring cup.

Two workers then carry the mold, which can get quite heavy depending on the size, over to a vibrating table. One of those workers watches and guides the mold, to make sure it does not vibrate off the table as all of the air bubbles are shaken out of the concrete.

Finished, the cement in the mold is moved to a drying rack in a room adjacent to the small cement making room and is set to dry, and the mold filling process begins again. In the drying room, a worker used molds stacked in front of her is busy scrubbing them clean, washing out dried bits of concrete, preparing the molds to be reused.

All throughout the room, on tables and racks, cements in molds are in various stages of drying. In four or five days, when the concrete has hardened, it will be popped out of the mold like a muffin tin, to either be painted by workers eager to decorate their finished product, or to be stored with the other finished products.

Many of those finished stone products in various shapes, sizes and colors, sit on palates lining both sides of the wall in a room adjacent to the rooms where the work is done. The products are waiting to be sold at the off-campus store, Rainier Thrift & Gift in the Bonney Lake Safeway Plaza on state Route 410, next to Ben Franklin.

It's a scene Yvonne Jahn, adult training programs director at Rainier School, which is one of five state-operated Residential Habilitation Centers for developmentally disabled adults, is proud to see.

"We're thrilled with the program," Jahn said, referring to the stone craft program, where residents make stone products to be sold.

The program was developed seven years ago as part of the adult vocational training program, Yahn said, when program directors were trying to think of another way residents at Rainier School could work and produce something.

"It's been one of our more successful programs," she said, proudly.

At first the program started out slow, but Jahn said apparently people liked the products made, and the program has slowly expanded to include a larger number of products and designs.

All the products are sold at Rainier Thrift & Gift, a store run by the school to sell all the products made by residents, and Jahn said the store was a natural outlet to feature the school's stone work, in addition to other textiles produced at Rainier School.

The stone craft program has had a big draw from customers, Jahn said, with the program growing every year and spring being the busiest time.

That's because most of the products made are designed to accent gardens as stepping stones, bird baths, sun dials, garden curbing or wall hangings.

"They're very popular," Jahn said of the stone products.

The actual process of making the stonework is fairly simple, yet a lot of effort and energy goes into the product, and Jahn said the workers are proud of their efforts. A lot of creative work goes into the design and the products.

And best of all, Jahn said, gesturing to the sun dials, bird baths, stepping stones and other merchandise to be sold, most of the credit can be given to the 14 residents who work in the stone shop.

"Whatever we do we make it so clients can do most of the work," Jahn said.

Not only is the stone room a way to give developmentally disabled adults a place to work, Jahn said, but the product is good quality designed stones sold at a reasonable cost.

"I think what is unique about this is each of the stones is hand-generated," she said.

When the program first started, Jahn explained, the products were fairly simple. At the beginning, only three colors - red, black and gray were used - to color the stones. But as the program has grown, so has the creativity. Now more than 40 different mold shapes are used, all sitting on racks ready to be drawn from, and residents and staff regularly experiment with different paint colors and accents to the stone products.

"There's a lot of things we can do," said Joanne Shafer, one of the stone shop's staff.

To give finished or drying products more color, marbles, mosaic glass and glitter have been experimented with. Staff members cut out mold prototypes using cardboard and the jugs are placed over the finished stones, with large holes cut for the designs, to allow residents to paint the stones.

"We have clients who really, really love to paint," Shafer said.

Whatever type of mold is used is based on orders from Rainier Thrift Shop, like if a birdbath mold is running low, more will be ordered to be made at the shop. How ever many of those stones from a certain mold are made is typically based on supply and demand, and less popular molds are discontinued, sometimes to be used again at a different time. However, a variety of stones from different molds are made at all times so an inventory can be built up. The shop's inventory is typically built up in winter, but the workers produce thousands of different stones a year.

While many stone shapes are popular, Jahn said the most popular shape is the animal paw.

A new product the stone crafters just turned out is a bear, although Jahn said footprints were really popular for a long time. The best selling mold, most frequently made, is a paw print, which people frequently use as stepping stones.

And every product is a source of pride Jahn said for both the workers and the staff.

Jahn, Shafer and shop supervisor Carol Davis all agree the workers enjoy their jobs, and as Jahn points out, it is considered a job. The workers earn money and enjoy their pay checks, Jahn said, spending their hard-earned money on candy and other things.

And if the shop is closed, Jahn said, workers want to know why.

Most of the time, however, the shop is open, and workers work in two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

"It's great," staff member Lori Grover said. "We have a lot of fun. It's a very, very great, creative fun atmosphere."

Stone products can be found at Rainier Thrift & Gift in the Bonney Lake Safeway Plaza on state Route 410, next to Ben Franklin. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. For more information on the products available, or how to special order a product, call Rainier Thrift & Gift at 253-891-6860.

Jessica Keller can be reached at jkeller@courierherald.com

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