‘Gift’ opens door of opportunity to those with disabilities

FILLING AN ONLINE ORDER — Chantal Tougas, of Naples, puts the finishing touches on a shipping box filled with buckwheat pillows. Tougas is an employee at L-OMA, which relocated to Bridgton. (De Busk Photo)

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

BRIDGTON — It is a dream come to fruition.

The Bridges Foundation, a nonprofit which provides work for people with developmental disabilities making buckwheat pillows and weighted blankets, has come to rest in Bridgton.

The Bridges Foundation moved L-OMA, the company that produces and sells the products, from Standish to Bridgton in October. The Bridges Foundation offers services and a first-time job to people who don’t get government services.

For a few employees, the move to Bridgton means less of a commute to the job they work at twice a week.

For Bridges Foundation board member Gregg Alexis, the new location offers a larger space and an opportunity for foot traffic in the summer. The new location, 2 Elm Street, is in a business building immediately behind Ruby Food.

“Little-by-little, we needed more space. This is something that will enable us to have a storefront. In the summer, we can get walk-in traffic,” he said.

About 95% of the purchases are done online, he said. People from all over the United States and Europe order the products, which range from scented sachets to buckwheat pillows that come in sizes for children or adults.

“If someone with autism is making a weighted blanket for someone with autism, it is meaningful. It’s great. It’s a way to give back,” Alexis said.

“One of the guys who works here likes to look at the shipping labels and talk about where the pillows are going,” he said. 

Originally, the business L-OMA began in 1997, after Heidi Fogarty visited relatives in Germany and discovered the buckwheat pillow, which has numerous health benefits. 

“L-OMA was owned by a woman named Heidi Fogarty. Literally, when she was considering retirement, she had a dream that God told her to donate her business to a nonprofit,” Alexis said.

“When she first gifted it to us, she thought it would be a way to make money for our services. She was thrilled, and still is, to know that we have a work program,” he said. 

“This is a prevocational program for people who have not had a job before. It teaches them work ethics, being on time, following directions, working with other people,” he said.

Yes, the employees do learn a variety of skills while making the products, but the most valuable one is working with other people, Alexis said.

“We’ve worked hard at basic rules of respect and being responsible for conduct or you cannot work here. Everyone is able to do that,” he said.

The work hours are twice a week: Monday from 2:30 to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 11:30 to 1 p.m.

The employees are paid after each shift to illustrate the correlation between working and getting a paycheck. 

On Thursday, about half-dozen employees were making the products that would be ready to be shipped by the time their shift was over. The workers talked about Tennessee, the destination of a box of pillows for a family.

Jonny Brooks, of Harrison, has worked for L-OMA for about three years, going from once a week to twice a week.

“Bridgton is closer,” he commented.

“It’s relaxing work. The tasks are easy enough that I can zone out. Normally, I wear my headphones and listen to music,” Brooks said.

Having this job “gives me something to do,” he said. “It’s something I generally look forward to, getting out of the house and making a little money.”

He calculated that one month of work covers the cost of having a phone — the bill for which he is responsible. Plus, he has a little bit of pocket money.

“Before I come here, I get into Bridgton 1½ hours before work. I eat at Subway and read. It pays for that,” he said.

“It’s kind of a routine: eat, go to work, go home,” Brooks said.

Alexis said, “They are paid on the day they work. It is a nice incentive. They make the connection: I work; I get paid.”

One personal touch is that the person who made the pillow signs the tag attached to it.

“Every now and then, someone sends a thank you note and addresses it to the person with [his or her] name on the card. That is really nice,” Alexis said.

Sometimes, a customer requests that the same person who made the product make another one for friends of family.

Chantal Tougas, who lives in Naples, likes making the buckwheat pillow orders that call for a lavender and balsam scents. She mixes the herbs with the buckwheat, admiring the appearance and the calming smell.

She likes her job, she said.

“It is just interesting. I never know what I’ll do until I get here,” Tougas said.

To order products from L-OMA, call (207) 595-8106 or go to the website www.l-oma.com. The store is located at 2 Elm Street in Bridgton.

BUCKWHEAT INSTEAD OF GOOSE FEATHERS — Jonny Brooks, of Harrison, pours buckwheat into a pillow cover to fill an order for L-OMA, which relocated from Standish to Bridgton this fall. (De Busk Photo)
THE RIGHT WEIGHT — Naples resident, Chantal Tougas (on the right), checks the weight of a buckwheat pillow that is being shipped to a customer on Thursday. (De Busk Photo)
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