January 7, 2008

“The goal is to see progress,” Irad Eichler, CEO and social worker at Paperworks.From a distance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill factory in Ramle. Beneath the steel beams of an old warehouse, about 30 workers sit at various stations folding, gluing and assembling recycled paper products. Even CEO Irad Eichler’s description of Paperworks as a designer brand that sells to high-end shops like Soho, Bauhaus and Bayit Banamal, sounds like the usual company spiel.

So what’s the difference? Eichler is both a CEO and a social worker, and the well-mannered employees at Paperworks are mentally ill, diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to post traumatic stress disorder.

Eichler says the concept of employing mentally and physically challenged people to construct products is nothing new. Dozens of organizations across the country have done this for many years in one way or another. But Paperworks, founded in 2006, is the only one to manufacture the product from beginning to end, including hiring top designers to engineer products that can be assembled in many stages and marketing its own products.

“Usually with these types of situations, factories outsource jobs to mentally challenged people and pay them very small amounts of money to say, fold papers,” explains Eichler. “With Paperworks, we have a name brand that is high quality in order to make the rehabilitation process more successful, and we pay by the hour, not by what an employee produces.”

The employees of Paperworks are well paid for their work and Eichler says they are proud of the high-end products they make, which aids in their rehabilitation. “Some of these people, even at 40, have never worked. We teach them the basic things they need to know about work, such as coming on time to scheduled shifts, not playing around on their shift and being disciplined.”

Nevertheless, Eichler says that the rehabilitation process can be slow and sometimes not successful. In one case, an employee who suffered from severe claustrophobia was eventually able to work an entire four-hour shift without taking any breaks. “It took six months for him to adjust, but now he’s one of the best workers,” says Eichler. “What is so trivial to most people is what we work with every day.”

Of course, each employee has to be given tasks that match his abilities, which is one of the reasons why Paperworks makes products that are assembled in many stages, such as a round trash can made of rolled-up magazines, a wallet from old comics and a laminated bookmark. Recycled paper is used to make everything because it is donated by the Amir Paper Products Company and, as an added bonus, it helps the environment.

“In our factory, we have two managers. One who manages the manufacturing process and makes sure the products are solid, and another social worker who manages the employees and works on their rehabilitation.”

As for the hiring process, the traditional routine has to be transformed too. When someone arrives to work, they are asked one simple question: Do you want to make progress? If the answer is yes, he is hired on the spot. “We take everyone who is capable,” says Eichler. “The goal is to see progress.”

Eichler, who was born and raised in Ra’anana, moved to Tel Aviv after his compulsory army duty. He studied criminology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, and got into social work by chance on his travels in India. “My girlfriend met an Israeli woman who was working with people as a social worker, and she introduced me. The minute I heard about her work, I was charmed and I knew I wanted to do the same thing. I got in touch with her when I got back to Israel and she helped me get my first job.”

At 24, after finishing his degree, Eichler started working as a social guide in an all-girls hostel. “The girls couldn’t function in a normal way because they suffer from a condition called Borderline, in which the world looks black and white. For them, everything is extreme and it inhibits living in a normal way.”

Four years later, he decided to start working with mentally ill patients and sell products in kiosks at malls across the country. “That project, which works with many organizations around the country, started with a few workers. Today, there are 450 employees.”

According to Eichler, these opportunities arose when a law was passed in 2000 that closed traditional institutions for the mentally ill and allowed rehabilitation to be handled by community centers. “Before this law, all of the rehabilitation was handled by the hospitals, and at first people were skeptical that mentally challenged people could be allowed to work independently or go out in society to parties or on trips. It was considered dangerous. Today, the attitudes are changing and we hope that Paperworks will make more and more of a difference.”

Printed by courtesy of the Jerusalem Post

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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