The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc . formed in 1918, began serving the Seattle area during the aftermath of World War I. The gas attacks and combat of the war left many American service members without vision once the war was over. As they returned home, the need for employment opportunities reached a critical level and spurred the creation of a Seattle organization, which was established in 1916.
The organization lobbied for the things people who are blind needed to live a productive life in Seattle: transportation , education and employment opportunities. They also worked to challenge the prevailing ideas of the day regarding what people who are blind could or couldn’t do.
Fast forward 100 years and The Lighthouse is still going strong. Celebrating a centennial anniversary in 2018, the Lighthouse is now the largest employer of people who are blind west of the Mississippi River. They’ve opened a satellite facility in Spokane and operate seven AbilityOne Base Supply Centers, extending their reach further in order to provide more opportunity within the Western United States. They’ve also expanded their reach eastward too, with a satellite facility all the way in Summerville, South Carolina.
In addition to being the largest employer of those who are blind West of the Mississippi, The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. also has another important distinction – They are the single largest employer of individuals who are Deaf-Blind in the United States. These employment opportunities have had a lasting impact on many people, including Greg Szabo and Andy Bacon.
Greg has worked at the Lighthouse’s Spokane facility for seven years now. Originally from the Chicago area, Greg found his way to the Pacific Northwest while training with his guide dog, Finn.
Something about the West Coast appealed to Greg, and he decided to relocate. He was happy with the move, but finding a job proved difficult. Fortunately, a friend suggested applying at the Lighthouse’s Spokane facility.
The Manufacturing Side
Greg started off in the manufacturing side of things. His first job was in packaging, boxing up the wallboards. From there, he started to actually build the wallboards themselves, and afterward, Greg moved around the machine shop, operating punch presses, saws and other machinery.
The Lighthouse’s biggest sellers are their SKILCRAFT wallboards, which are very popular products sold through the AbilityOne Program. “They are definitely a big seller.” says Greg. “Back in June, we produced over 11,000 of them. Keeping us busy!” The Lighthouse also produces guillotine cutters and the ubiquitous Entrenchment Tool, known as the E-Tool in common military parlance. Soon, their production will branch into litters for the military as well. “That should bring on another 10-15 jobs for those who are blind here in Spokane.”
Regarding working on the manufacturing floor, Greg says this: “Your everyday is really working as a team together, making sure the orders are done, especially now when it’s a busy time and we really need to get the boards out. So a lot of times, it’s a lot of communication. And it’s really amazing, having as many folks as we do that are visually impaired. We get around safely, and we have hardly any injuries which is awesome. Folks are really motivated to work. A lot of folks like me have difficulty finding jobs and having that opportunity to come to work every day and give back to society is huge for the employees here. That’s why we’re able to produce as many wallboards as we do a month. We enjoy our jobs and really are thankful that we have the opportunity.”
The Marketing Side
During Greg’s time working in manufacturing, he discovered that he has a passion for speaking.
“When I was on the manufacturing floor, we have a Toastmasters group here, and that totally developed my public speaking skills.” Greg says. “I still remember the first meeting in our Toastmasters Club, and I was so nervous for my first speech. Now, that’s my job. I’m out speaking in front of large crowds.”
Seattle provided Greg with the opportunity to earn his LEAN certifications. When the time came for his promotion, the role they wanted him in called for someone with a bachelor’s degree. So Greg took advantage of the Lighthouse’s college tuition program, where the agency pays for half of the cost of tuition, making higher education much more affordable. Today, Greg is the Development and Public Relations Director, putting his previously untapped speaking skills to good use to promote the Lighthouse and their mission.
Greg didn’t see himself doing things like fundraising or leading a team towards fundraising goals before his time with Seattle’s Spokane facility, but now it’s what he enjoys doing. “I really love it, and it’s a great opportunity to do more for the organization and help out our employees. To help raise funds for their training to help with that independence and self-sufficiency.”
Fundraising for a Cause
The fundraisers Greg works on are community events like an Annual Food Truck Rally and the Beer and Wine Garden. Seattle’s Spokane facility also branched out into a breakfast fundraiser, Decade of Opportunities. It proved popular, and plans are in the works to host another one in 2019. These events serve as a vehicle to increase awareness, ensuring that the Lighthouse is well known by those in the community.
Greg’s fundraising efforts help fund the services the Spokane facility provides to those who are newly blind at the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse brings in an orientation and mobility specialist who goes over essential skills like working the bus system and getting groceries from the grocery store. This training provides Seattle’s employees with independent mobility they wouldn’t otherwise have. Seattle Lighthouse’s employees are welcome to utilize this training, free of charge, for three hours per week. Those three hours are paid work hours, too.
“I’m just thankful. I enjoy that I have the opportunity to be a voice for my friends and coworkers here and help raise funds to help with their training. Going out to Washington, D.C. to do advocacy work on Capitol Hill for employing people who are blind in the future – that’s just amazing work that I never thought I would be doing. Every time I get out and do what I do, it’s so exciting and I have a really good passion for the job.”
Andy has been working at the Lighthouse for 12 years now. Andy and his wife have three grandchildren who are living with them, ages 11, 9 and 3 ½. His vision began to deteriorate during college, and by the end of college, he was unable to work in the field he had trained in due to his visual impairment. Andy ended up applying at the Lighthouse, initially aiming to work at the Seattle location. His commute would have been 60 miles per day.
Base Supply Center Opportunity
The timing on Andy connecting with the Lighthouse was fortuitous; the agency had an opening at their Tacoma Base Supply Center for an Assistant Manager. He worked as an assistant manager for two years and was then promoted to manager, a position he holds to this day. He’s played an integral part in the direction of the store during his time there. “My boss, she put so much trust in me.” Andy says of the time when they were getting settled into their new building. “I got to put all the shelving in here, in this big empty building.”
Andy’s boss nominated him for the Business Management Training, a premier professional development program provided by National Industries for the Blind (NIB). It was a two year program where participants work together in teams. Andy’s team went to Alexandria, Virginia five times. They worked with Darden Faculty at the University of Virginia. Topics like general management, finances and marketing were covered during this rigorous training, with a focus on practical application in real world situations.
In addition to Andy’s Base Supply Store in Tacoma, the Lighthouse operates Base Supply Stores in California and Nevada. These Base Supply Centers carry hundreds of SKILCRAFT and other products provided through the AbilityOne Program and are also staffed by people who are blind.
“That’s one of the good things about the Base Supply Stores. They give people who are blind the opportunity for employment in the areas that aren’t right near the manufacturing plants.” says Andy. One of Andy’s goals is to be able to have someone who is completely blind working at their Base Supply Store in the near future. In order for this goal to become a reality, some adaptations will need to be made, but Andy is confident that these challenges will be surmountable.
Sharing the Mission with P-card Holders
Once a month, Andy heads out to educate new purchase card – or “P-card” – holders receiving their training regarding the rules and regulations of purchasing. He tells these new cardholders about the AbilityOne Program, ensuring that they understand the program’s greater impact.
“I give them an idea of my backstory and what the Lighthouse has meant to me.” says Andy.
Andy’s Involvement with Beep Baseball
Beep Baseball is exactly what it sounds like –baseball played by those who can’t see. Since there is a spectrum of blindness, all players wear a blindfold, evening out the playing field between all players.
Beeping is used to help players orient themselves around the field, circumventing the need for sight altogether. Beep baseball is a competitive sport that players put their all in, proving that you don’t need sight to be strong, athletic and active.
A field was recently donated by the local Elks Club so that Andy’s Beep Baseball League can have their own field, customized specifically for playing Beep Baseball.
During the off season, the Beep Ball League stays active and goes bowling, helping to keep up their physical condition during the off season. Beep Baseball isn’t just a fun activity – it’s proof positive that people who are blind can push past the limits and live the life they want to live, here and now.
The Lighthouse Makes a Difference
We often take it for granted, but work is so much more than just a paycheck – it’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning and a reason to feel accomplished before drifting off to sleep at night. For 100 years, The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc.’s mission has been to provide employment for people who are blind and Deaf-Blind, ensuring equal opportunities are available to those who want to work to pursue their piece of the American Dream.
“It’s an amazing organization for giving people who are blind the opportunity to have a job and be employed.” Greg says. “I really love that they offer training to the employees and enhance the skills they have or develop skills for those who are newly blind.”
Federal purchasers, when you purchase wallboards and other SKILCRAFT and AbilityOne products made by The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., you’re getting the quality products and services you need, while helping to sustain their mission for decades to come.