Getting the job done right is Priority No. 1 for Desert Arc workers at Sunnylands

Friday, April 10, 2015
With job coach Edgar Martinez in the background, Marco Meza, Ulisses Cervantes, and Isaias Woods take out trash from bins near the Center & Gardens.

APRIL 10, 2015 — Like clockwork, a white van with the Desert Arc logo pulls into the Sunnylands maintenance yard at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday. Out pop three men eager to get to work.

“What I’m trying to do is to teach these guys how to work. I want them to do it right and to do it safely,” said Edgar Martinez, who has served as a Desert Arc job coach at Sunnylands since May 2014.

His crew members — Ulisses Cervantes, Marco Meza, and Isaias Woods — prep for a morning routine that gives them the responsibility of cleaning and maintaining some of the estate’s iconic outdoor features. They load brooms, dusters, a mop bucket, leaf blowers and other equipment into a trailer cart and hitch it to an electric vehicle that will take them on their rounds.

Desert Arc’s Supported Employment Enclave Program pairs people with disabilities with a job coach to give them the opportunity to earn money and learn job skills at a business or organization in the Coachella Valley. Sunnylands has participated in the program since November 2011 and twice has hired Desert Arc clients into part-time jobs.

“Sunnylands provides our clients with extraordinary hands-on experience in the landscape industry, allowing our clients to increase their skills and their work ethic,” said Donnya Villarreal, Desert Arcs’ assistant director of vocational programs. “Sunnylands practices Desert Arc’s mission each day: ‘Enhancing the quality of life and creating opportunities for people with disabilities.’”

For Ulisses, Marco, and Isaias, the job starts each day, Monday through Friday, with emptying trash cans at buildings throughout the estate, from Operations to the huge garbage bins shielded from public view at the Center & Gardens.

Under Martinez’s guidance, they also maintain some of Sunnylands’ landmarks. One of the first stops is at the resting place of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. The crew wipes the mausoleum of dust and dirt. Cobwebs are removed from its canopy. The marble floor is mopped, and grass surrounding the structure is groomed. The Chinese Pagoda is next, and then the Delos Bench.

Between stops, the crew members sometimes razz one another like brothers. Ulisses and Isaias jokingly tell Marco he will have to do all the mowing for the week to make up for the previous week, when he was off. As their golf cart, heavy with people and equipment, slows on an uphill portion of the estate, Martinez says, “My kids are overweight!” The men belly laugh and respond by telling Martinez he’s the one who needs to go on a diet.

Desert Arc workers Marco Meza, Ulisses Cervantes, and Isaias Woods pose with their job coach, Edgar Martinez.

After the morning routine, the Desert Arc crew can take on any number of tasks. In recent months, they disassembled, painted and reinstalled the hundreds of black, miniature lamp posts that light the driveways of the estate from the Frank Sinatra gate to the Retreat Pavilion. They wipe down the light fixtures twice a month.

“They take a lot of weight off my shoulders,” said Sunnylands’ assistant facilities manager, David Montoya. “The more I deal with them, the more I see how capable they are.”
With Desert Arc performing some maintenance jobs, Facilities Department employees can make other repairs and improvements on the estate, Montoya said. Desert Arc’s repainting of the driveway lights alone saved Montoya’s department three to four days of staff time.

The crew also has washed vehicles, mowed lawns, tamed unruly landscaping, restocked refrigerators, and directed visitors into overflow parking and out of the Center & Gardens parking lot.

“I tell the guys, we’re here to do whatever Sunnylands wants,” Martinez said. “I know we are capable of it.”