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MATTOON — For Michael Engstrom, there are a couple of reasons why he enjoys loading cardboard into a baling machine so it can be recycled.

That was his job one day this week at the Mattoon recycling facility operated by the LIFE Academy program for the developmentally disabled.

"I like putting it into the machine and crushing it," he said. "It's my first job."

Engstrom and other students in the Eastern Illinois Area of Special Education adult program work at the recycling facility, sorting and preparing the recyclables to help them learn a variety of skills.

Those include preparation for outside work once they complete their education, program job coach Heather Hughes said.

"It gives them a purpose, they know they can contribute," Hughes said. "There's a job for every single kid."

The recycling facility is located at 1615 Lake Land Blvd. in Mattoon, directly north of the former Mattoon Area Adult Education Center building that now houses the LIFE Academy adult program.

Recyclables are picked up from several businesses and other locations. Drop off for the public is also available in a bin in the back of the building.

The facility takes No. 1 and No. 2 plastic, plastic bottle caps, corrugated cardboard and a variety of paper.

As for the bottle caps, some of them bring the program money through a drink company rebate program, and many will go to a new venture for the LIFE Academy.

A company in Evansville, Ind., makes benches and picnic tables with plastic lumber from recycled bottle caps and the LIFE Academy plans to offer them for sale soon. Proceeds will help sustain the recycling program.

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They should be available by Aug. 12 and order information will be available on the EIASE website, www.eiase.com, and the organization's Facebook page, EIASE assistant director Jeremy Doughty said.

One day this week, the recycling facility had 177 boxes with about 3,000 pounds of bottle caps in all. That was around mid-morning and Hughes said there would likely be about 200 boxes ready by the end of the day.

A lot of activity and different tasks take place in the recycling center.

Aluminum soft drink tabs are separated for donation to a Ronald McDonald House recycling program.

Cardboard bales are stored so they can be taken to and sold to CCAR Industries in Charleston, another facility for the developmentally disabled.

Cans are crushed and plastic is sorted by type and to make sure nothing that isn't acceptable is in the mix. Paper is also sorted and the student workers separate what's usable and what's not.

Hughes travels with students to a total of 57 locations in Mattoon, including all Mattoon schools, with the students to collect their recyclables.

Doughty said that's a "powerful thing" because it helps overcome stereotypes of the developmentally disabled.

"It gives them exposure," he said. "People see that it teaches them a work ethic."

Students work at the recycling center all year, three each day during the summer. About 65 students work there during the school year, 21 each day on a rotating basis.

Hughes said it was a "blessing" that the EIASE diagnostic development program merged with a Mattoon school program a year ago, offering more programs for students and for the recycling program.

The school district owns the building that houses the recycling center and EIASE leases it.

Contact Dave Fopay at (217) 238-6858. Follow him on Twitter: @FopayDave

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Dave Fopay is a reporter for the JG-TC who covers Coles County, the local court system, Charleston schools and more.

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