In the beginning, there were fewer than 15 people working in a building at the Greene County Fairgrounds under contract with Franklin Manufacturing to dismantle unusable washing machine transmissions, then washing, separating and packing the parts.

They made less than the minimum wage — which, in 1975, was $2.10 an hour — but for the clients of the Greene County Sheltered Workshop, all of whom were developmentally disabled, there was a bounty of benefits, including the satisfaction of gainful employment, the warmth of companionship and a sense of accomplishment.

From that grew Genesis Development, which served 4,780 clients and operated on a budget of $18.1 million in fiscal-year 2018.

But it now appears the final chapter in an inspiring success story is about to be written, according to internal staff emails obtained by The Jefferson Herald.

Facing what the Genesis board calls “unprecedented operational challenges for our organization,” the Jefferson-based nonprofit is continuing to provide services, but it likely will need another agency to take over in order to maintain services because of a budget shortfall.

So daunting is the financial crisis that Genesis on Friday placed a freeze on employee sick time, personal days and vacation, according to an email sent to staff by the board. If an employee should resign, the organization is unable to make payment for their accrued vacation, according to the board’s email.

Genesis has nearly 500 employees throughout a huge swath of Iowa, from Storm Lake in the north and Clarinda in the south to Belle Plaine in the east.

In its email Friday to staff, the Genesis board put the blame on an “ever-changing, increasingly difficult health care environment.”

The organization showed an operating loss of more than $1.3 million in fiscal-year 2018, according to its annual report, but reported a profit of $982,100 the year before.

Health care providers in Iowa continue to struggle with a privatized Medicaid system put in place, and kept there, by  back-to-back Republican governors.

Managed care organizations (MCOs) have come and gone, and reimbursement of services has been slow or even nonexistent.

But Genesis employees speaking on condition of anonymity say the money crunch isn’t fully the fault of Iowa’s two MCOs.

Genesis spokesman Bill Gebhart, a development associate in the organization, said he couldn’t elaborate beyond what information has been released publicly.

“There were multiple issues that led us to this point,” Gebhart said this week. “The MCOs are just one of them, but they’re not the only things that led us here.”

Genesis on Oct. 5 will transfer its mental health services to Atlantic-based Zion Recovery Services.

Even though Genesis is still more synonymous locally with employment services, supported community living and programs for people with disabilities, mental health therapy has become its dominant service, with 3,584 clients in fiscal-year 2018.

Interim Genesis CEO Wendy Malone has been moved into an advisory role to the board, according to the board’s all-staff email, which also stated that Genesis is looking to “strengthen the organization while we look for long-term solutions.”

One such long-term solution could be the transfer of additional services to other organizations.

Malone is also president of Maquoketa-based Imagine the Possibilities, a similar organization.

In an email to staff on Sept. 18, Carrie Wilde, longtime director of services for the Central Region of Genesis, said that legal counsel was preparing a proposal to another statewide agency that had expressed interest in working with Genesis.

“The primary point is ... that the best option at this point is to move forward with a partnership,” Wilde wrote to staff.

“This means we probably will have a different name,” she continued, “but we will still be able to serve the people we care for and maintain our jobs. It doesn’t come out as good in an email as it does in person, but I strongly believe if we stay strong we’ll come out the other side without too many bumps and bruises.”

This was already a season of change at Genesis Development.

Terry Johnson retired as CEO of Genesis on July 31 after 40 years at the organization’s helm.

He joined the organization when it was still known as the Greene County Sheltered Workshop.

It became Genesis Development in 1988, reflecting a change in approach from  employing people with disabilities to placing them in jobs. Even then, however, it had only 48 clients.

As late as this year, Genesis was still growing its service territory.

Earlier this year, Genesis announced it was expanding southward following a merger with Pursuit of Independence, which serves people with disabilities in the communities of Lenox, Bedford, Clarinda and Creston.

“There are things that Genesis Development does very well and things that POI does very well,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “We only exist for the people that we serve.”

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