News & Observer, North Carolina.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006.
RALEIGH, N.C. - Janet Griffey says there is nothing that blind people can't do, and she has convinced the United States military that she's right. As a result, her agency, the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind, has seen unprecedented growth after almost 40 years in business.
The staff at the nonprofit agency, which employs blind workers, has doubled to 300 over the past year. Annual sales have more than doubled since 2002, to $31 million. It recently bought a 237,000-square-foot building on 19 acres for its new headquarters and factory. And it plans to start a call center in March.
Griffey, president and chief executive of the clinic, says the agency is evolving. She foresees a day when it will be viewed as a major corporation with several lines of business.
"I would never say that there are certain jobs that can't be done by someone who is blind," she said. "I've been proven wrong too many times."
The agency got a boost last year when it won a four-year contract worth about $17 million a year to make Army uniforms, Griffey said.
Under the agreement, the clinic will produce 600,000 sets of jackets and pants a year, doing all of the fabric-cutting, sewing and packaging. More than 75 percent of the clinic's workers are blind or legally blind, which means their vision is 20/200 or less in one eye, even when they are wearing glasses.
Winning the Army contract has led to other ventures. The agency is in the early stages of helping the U.S. Air Force research and design a new uniform. Once the design is complete, the clinic will start on a $14 million contract to make the uniforms, Griffey said.
"We have made them realize that the work being done by people who are blind can be delivered on time," she said.
Some of the workers who sew for the clinic are totally blind.
"We do have a lot of adaptive safeguards on the machines, but it really depends on the individual and how determined they are to achieve a skill," Griffey said.
The agency was established in 1966 by the Raleigh Host Lions Club with the sole purpose of providing jobs for people who have visual impairments. Many of its contracts are awarded under a 1938 law that established the National Industries for the Blind, giving preference in government contracts to companies where blind employees perform 75 percent of the labor.
In addition to making uniforms, the clinic manufactures pillows, mattresses, electrical tape and file folders for the federal government and the military.
In March, the agency is going in a new direction. Griffey said it has made arrangements with several large companies in the Triangle to handle call services such as gathering data, taking orders and handling customer complaints.
The new arrangements will mean more jobs, Griffey said. Another 30 to 35 workers will be added to help with the U.S. Air Force contract. Call center employees will be added as needed.
But the call center is just the beginning, said Chris Bingham, director of sales and marketing.
"We have people on our staff with college degrees," he said. "They don't all want to go into manufacturing. We are looking for professional-type jobs where they can use those skills."
Griffey uses several resources to find qualified visually impaired employees. Many of the new hires are recommended by employees. She also works closely with the Department for the Blind in Raleigh, and local optometrists and ophthalmologists.
Griffey said she doesn't want her agency to be viewed as a work shelter, or as a place offering jobs that don't enhance the skills of people who are blind.
"We want to offer people highly skilled jobs, and let them gain work experience that makes them much more valuable employees," she said.
"My dream," Griffey said, "is that people who are blind will want to work here, just like people in the community want to work for SAS," the Cary software maker famed for its generous employee benefits.
Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com
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