Annual chili fest supports special DD programs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 17, 2013

Richard Harris serves up his award-winning chili.

Richard Harris serves up his award-winning chili.

Donning a green Army cap and matching apron Richard Harris was eagerly dishing out his special blend of chili, hoping that once more he would take home a first place plaque.

The amateur cook was one of 26 who entered this year’s Board of Developmental Disabilities 14th annual Chili Fest Saturday at Dawson-Bryant High School.

“This year I made my dad’s spaghetti sauce and made it multi-functional,” Harris said. “I added beans and seasonings.”

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This is the seventh year for Harris to enter the annual event where two years ago the Coal Grove man took first place in the individual category, an award he is proud to show off to anyone.

The plaque is nice, but Harris is more interested in the reason the cookoff was started — to foster community support for the county’s DD district. That’s because for the past 20 years Harris has spent most weekdays putting in a 9-to-2 day at one of DD most visible programs — Tri-State Industries.

Up on a hill overlooking Coal Grove is the Tri-State Industries warehouse that has brought a sense of accomplishment and pride for hundreds of DD clients. There they gain what still some parts of society still deny them.

Stacked throughout the spacious building are concrete examples of what these clients can do: Thousands of shiny silver clothes hangers they’ve shaped; hundreds of white plastic bottles whose labels they’ve pasted on and roping woven so tightly it is sought after by the coal mining industry.

“I have a learning disability,” Harris said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t get the job done.”

The county’s DD program is made up of the Early Childhood Center, Open Door School, Tri-State Industries and the new Adult Activities Center at Sybene. The childhood center focuses on children from birth to 3 years with its early intervention and preschool program. Both are accredited by the Ohio Department of Education and certified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The Open Door School, also certified by the state education department, provides classroom experiences for students ages 6 to 21 years old. Many of the students who graduate from Open Door go on to the work opportunities at Tri-State Industries.

Those at Tri-State can now take advantage of the new Adult Activities Center where clients can reinforce their skills from math that helps them in handling money to cooking to basic living skills.

The district dates back to the 1960s when parents with children who had mental retardation were looking for educational opportunities for them. They were not alone. Other families across the state were facing the same challenges. Their cries for help galvanized the Ohio Legislature to create Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities boards to address the needs of those with many handicaps.

In 2009 the local board dropped the phrase “mental retardation” from its name, a decision Harris salutes.

“I’m glad they drop mental retardation,” he said. “The ‘R’ word is offensive.”

To remind the county about what it does, each March the local board of DD sponsors a variety of events for the public from a 5-K run to the chili fest to a DD basketball game.

“It is great for the community,” Lou Pyles, longtime board member for the district, said. “This whole month of activities gets the word out about DD. The basketball game, the balloon launch and especially the chili fest. It reaches out to a lot of people about the program.”

And it’s the program that Harris is grateful to participate in.

“It means I’m happy to be a part of society,” he said. “We should be treated as equals. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability. We are people too.”