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Lighthouse for the Blind offers rays of hope for visually impaired

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2011 - Just days before Christmas, it was business as usual at theLighthouse for the Blindin Overland, a nonprofit corporation that has employed blind St. Louisans since the Great Depression.

Jonathan Clemons, 34, who is legally blind, was about to wrap up his shift for the day. He and several other workers seated at a long table were carefully assembling packets of medical supplies that would eventually find their way into the hands of emergency medical technicians. It's a contract job for a commercial company that sells pre-packaged medical kits to first responders.

Clemons, who has worked at the Lighthouse for two years and hopes to move into a sales position, said he wants people to know that his company produces quality products.

"We have a passion for what we do,'' he said. "We work just as hard as the average person, and I feel we can put out as good of a product as anybody else.''

The Lighthouse specializes in light manufacturing and assembly jobs for adults who are blind or legally blind. The product line has changed through the decades -- from making mops and brooms in 1933 when the company was founded by Mary Ryder, a St. Louis labor activist and humanitarian -- to assembling medical kits and producing cleaning supplies, paints and lubricants, said president John Thompson.

Because these are not mass-produced items, the Lighthouse has been able to buck the economic tide that has swept U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas, he said.

"We operate in niche markets, and 95 percent of what we sell goes to the military in one way, shape or form,'' Thompson said. "The types of things that we do typically aren't big enough for the big dogs to do, but they're not so small that we don't want to do them. They don't have volume enough to ship production to China or India, or they may be a product that is under the Berry amendment.''

The Berry amendment requires the Department of Defense to purchase American-produced products.

Thompson said government contracts are crucial to allowing the Lighthouse to provide an employment lifeline to blind St. Louisans.

The corporation employs about 70 blind people -- ages 20 to 75 -- full time. They are paid about $9 an hour, plus medical and retirement benefits.

"We take people who would be on disability -- Supplemental Security Income -- and they become taxpayers,'' he said. "And the social benefit is immeasurable.''

The National Federation of the Blind estimates that the unemployment rate for working-age blind people is between 70 and 75 percent.

'We Have a Mission'

Analysts would classify the Lighthouse as a social enterprise -- a business that exists to meet philanthropic goals.

"We're here for the social good. We have a mission of blind employment education and support services -- and we support ourselves through our industries program,'' Thompson said.

The Lighthouse is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, which means that it operates without the pressures of a financial stakeholder or shareholders who demand ever-increasing profits, he said.

In the 11 years that he has overseen operations, sales have grown from about $12 million a year to an average of about $30 million, Thompson said. In 2005, the corporation began using company profits -- about $1.5 million a year -- to fund community outreach programs, ranging from sports and space camps to providing equipment to assist people with low vision.

Different from private industry, the Lighthouse focuses on employing as many people as makes sense, he said.

"We have to be profitable, although we're not for profit. We need to make and sell products at a profit to exist. We are not a United Way agency, and we don't get subsidies and government grants,'' he said. "We're not exempt from recession, but we can weather storms easier. Commercial companies live for the quarter.''

The Lighthouse was in the news recently for hosting a ribbon cutting to mark a 17,000-square-foot expansion of its Overland facility that focuses on assembly work. A second facility in Berkeley houses the manufacturing end of the business. The expansion was funded internally by the Lighthouse.

But even as the organization was celebrating its new facility, Thompson said, 2011 turned out to be the nonprofit's first down year since he took charge.

"We don't know exactly why,'' he said. "We know certain things contributed. The closing of a depot in Kuwait; the troop exodus out of Iraq.''

Because of the changing times, Thompson said he is always on the lookout for new types of products -- and jobs -- that suit his company.

Planning for the Future

Although the Lighthouse has existed for three-quarters of a century, Thompson said that many St. Louisans are not aware of the nonprofit.

"The evidence of blindness is only one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. If I were to ask you how many people you know, I'm going to bet you'd say, 'None.' The majority of people have never known a blind person. And we're not pounding your mailbox with donation requests. And we're not out there beating a drum, so there is no reason for you to hear about us,'' he said.

He believes his corporation serves an important role in society: hiring people who are often not considered employable by private industry, despite legislative attempts on behalf of Americans with disabilities. Companies can always find reasons not to hire qualified blind applicants, he said, even though technology, such as zoom text and voice recognition software, enable them to perform many jobs.

"The companies worry about cost. Or, what would happen if there was a fire? Or, how are they going to get to the bathroom?'' Thompson said. He added that the Overland facility can evacuate in one minute or less because employees are so familiarized with their surroundings.

The Lighthouse has started to focus on developing white-collar jobs and now employs legally blind people as supervisors, accountants and customer service representatives, Thompson said. The organization used to operate the switchboard for Scott Air Force Base, for example, and is studying call centers and job opportunities that would allow blind people to work from home, aided by computers and low-vision equipment.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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