Joe Bender still can't believe it, but that giant new sign on the building where he works was a "complete surprise."

Of stainless steel, in capital letters, it reads:

JOSEPH S. BENDER BUILDING.

"Normally I'd see the invoices" for such a purchase, Bender, 65, said with a shake of his head last week.

After 38 years as executive director of the Occupational Training Center (OTC) in Burlington Township - it trains and employs hundreds of area residents with intellectual and physical disabilities - "it's very seldom that I get good surprises," he said.

In September the center's board of trustees voted unanimously to rename the big brick building without his knowledge. "Joe picks out certain objectives and works toward them," OTC board chairman Al Cascarina explained last week. "He always sees the big picture."

Bender was alerted to the name change about two weeks ago, days before the 20-foot-long sign went up.

But the far greater surprise at OTC has been its remarkable growth under Bender's long leadership.

Armed with a master's degree in counseling, he was just 27 when he took over as executive director in 1977, two years after coming on as program director.

At the time, the center provided services to 50 program participants, as its client population is called, with an operating budget of $300,000.

Today OTC is a $35 million-a-year nonprofit business operation serving more than 600 participants, many of whom might otherwise be unemployable.

Hundreds work in janitorial services at county, state, or private office buildings and military bases. About a quarter of the state office buildings in Trenton are cleaned each day by OTC, as is the federal courthouse in Camden.

Others do packaging or assembly work at the 65,000-square-foot Bender building on Manhattan Drive. Some stock shelves at supermarkets and department stores. And Burlington County's acclaimed recycling program is staffed mostly by OTC participants.

"Once they learn, they do a great job," Bender said on a recent tour of the office and production facility that now bears his name.

"When I get tired doing paperwork, I come out here," he said, as he strode toward the packaging and assembly area known as Bench Work.

"It changes your outlook. This is why I've been here 40 years."

Crouched over brightly lighted tables, dozens of moderately disabled people were tucking six manila envelopes at a time into plastic packages for sale at the Dollar Tree chain of retail stores.

About 170 people are employed at Bench Work, where they are paid piecework according to the number of units they assemble each day. And while most earn just $2 or $3 an hour, "they take pride in earning a paycheck, and they see their friends here," said Bender. "It's a place to go every day." They also get transportation to and from home.

At one table, a half-dozen women were packaging embroidery thread with sheets of open weave fabric for use in needlework projects. The company that contracted with OTC is based in France.

"I like coming here," said Crystal Jones, 52. "I like to be with my friends." She said her best friend here is named Helen.

At another table, Donna Chmielenski, 43, who was folding towels, said she has worked at OTC for 20 years. A counter on the table, which she clicked after each fold, showed she had done 192 by midafternoon.

"I live with my mom and dad" in Edgewater Park, she said. Her supervisor, she said, "gives me lots of jobs."

People with intellectual limitations are not the only ones who find work here.

"I can't believe it's been seven years," said William Parker, 30.

"Right now I'm sealing bags" containing the embroidery packages, explained Parker, who has severe spina bifida - a birth defect where the spine does not close properly. With profound curvature of the spine, he sits in a wheelchair, hunched closely over his work.

"I think for a lot of us this is the best place for us," Parker said. "A long time ago I had a volunteer job, but this is much better." He lives at a small group home operated by OTC.

Early struggles

The center began in 1964 "with eight severely disabled individuals in a small Army barracks donated by Fort Dix," Bender said. It later moved to a building on Woodlane Road in Westampton, where its service population grew slowly.

Then, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan ended the decade-old federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program (CETA), whose funding had been the center's main support.

"The funds just went away," Bender recalled. "They just ceased to exist. And I said OTC is going under unless we do something." He went to the [Burlington County] Freeholders and said, "Is there anything we can do?"

A short while later, Robert C. Shinn, then the freeholder director, saw Bender at a Rotary Club meeting.

"How do you feel about trash and recycling?" Shinn asked him. "And I said, 'If it provides jobs for people with disabilities and keeps us going, it sounds good to me.' "

'Life-changing'

That year OTC workers began to staff the county's newspaper-collection program. They now collect and sort the recycling for all 40 municipalities.

"It was a life-changing moment," said Bender. Shinn, he said, had told him, " 'You cannot depend on government handouts. You've got to make your own way.' "

About 75 percent of OTC's funding now comes from work contracts, he said, with government funding, including Medicaid, picking up the rest.

Despite all its good work, Bender says he fears for the future of "sheltered workplace" programs like OTC that pay some workers below minimum wage.

Advocates for the disabled are lobbying Congress and the states to require that all people, regardless of their productivity, be paid minimum wage. "They feel our people are being segregated," Bender said, but he feels certain that very few of his program participants would find sustained work at competitive wages.

"The people who think, 'Close this down and they'll all get jobs,' " he said, "don't function in the real world."

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