Expanding Jobs, Investing in Youth

little girl with blonde hair in astronaut outfit

For nearly 90 years, NIB associated nonprofit agency Lighthouse for the Blind, St. Louis, has provided employment opportunities as well as educational and support services for people who are blind. The agency distinguishes itself by directing most of its community outreach efforts — and proceeds from its manufacturing activities — toward serving school-age children and young adults to build their self-confidence and independence for long-term success.

Since its launch in 1933, the Lighthouse has added new product lines and expanded its manufacturing facilities to two locations: a liquid and aerosol manufacturing plant; and a packaging and kitting facility. Together the facilities manufacture, fill, and package more than 200 products for the federal government and commercial customers.

In 2014, the agency, which has approximately 100 employees, adopted a strategy of acquiring assets of commercial companies to broaden its customer base and provide additional employment opportunities, explains Brittney Bettonville, director of marketing and public relations. As a result, the Lighthouse now produces products under four commercial brands: Quake Kare® disaster preparedness kits and emergency supplies for the home, office, and classroom; Tear Mender® instant fabric adhesive; RapidFix® dual liquid adhesive system; and Badge Magic®/CosBond®, an instant adhesive for attaching badges to uniforms.

Acquisitions Enhance Employment Opportunities

The acquisitions have enhanced employment opportunities and upward mobility at the Lighthouse. Jonathan Clemons, who joined the agency in 2010, was promoted in 2016 to lead line operator in the agency’s aerosol manufacturing plant, where his unit produces 10,000-20,000 cans of aerosol product each day. Clemons enjoys the responsibility and relishes the variety of work.

“My satisfaction comes from getting to work with the other people here,” he says. “It’s like a family.” A busy father of three high-school students, Clemons is active in counseling through his church, guiding men on how to be present for their children. In addition to his duties at the Lighthouse, he is working toward a counseling degree, which he views as his next professional step.

“Since coming to the Lighthouse, there have been no limits — there are so many opportunities to grow,” Clemons says. “I’m doing challenging work I love. I’ve gotten promotions and been able to provide for my children and buy a home. This job has been a blessing.” Tammy Clardy, the Lighthouse’s 2022 nominee for the Milton J. Samuelson Career Achievement award, is another example of career growth. An accounting department employee for 23 years, she recently mastered advanced Excel so she could fill in when her manager took a leave of absence. In addition, she stepped into a new role as public policy liaison and joined NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program.

Clardy returned home from her first Advocates training session brimming with ideas for ways to spread the word about increasing employment opportunities for people who are blind. “I feel the need to share the Lighthouse’s mission with others because what we do here is so important,” she says.

Investing in the Next Generation

young black child with braided hair, wearing salmon colored shirt and blue apron, scooping an avocado

In addition to providing greater employment opportunities, the Lighthouse acquisition strategy funds See the Future, 23 community outreach programs assisting children and young adults who are blind or visually impaired throughout Missouri and Western Illinois.

The first See the Future program launched in 2005, says Angie Yorke, community programs manager. Since then, the agency’s outreach programs have grown to include training in adaptive technology, independent living skills, professional career development, and vision assessment through a mobile low vision clinic.

See the Future participants are encouraged to take part in more than one program and often do. “Our goal is to teach activities of daily life, provide social interactions, and help build confidence, friendships, and independence,” Yorke explains.

“All the programs are very effective, but we feel the Summer Orientation and Mobility and Adapted Living Resource Program (SOAR) is among the best in the country for teaching independent living skills,” Yorke says, calling it “absolutely life changing.” The one-week, non-residential program begun in 2006 has grown into an intensive, three-week residential program that provides individualized instruction to youth who are blind and plan to seek competitive employment, attend vocational training, or go to college after high school.

Each summer 12 students aged 16-21 have the opportunity to attend the program at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri. There, they work one-on-one with instructors to master skills needed to live successfully on their own: orientation and mobility; cooking; travel using public transportation or a ride-share service; money management; self-care; and clothing management. In addition, students hone organizational skills, learn to craft a resume, and participate in mock job interviews. Guest presentations on topics ranging from guide dogs to self-defense round out the program.

In the afternoons, mentors engage students in recreational activities designed to build self-confidence and travel skills, such as attending a St. Louis Cardinals game, going to an arcade or water park, shopping, and dining out. SOAR also focuses on helping students learn to navigate interpersonal relationships, offering sessions on etiquette, dating and friendship, and sex education.

“The students form a life-long family over the course of three weeks. Many come in as shy and unsure, but at the end of the session they don’t want to go home. We often hear ‘This was the best three weeks of my life,’ ” Yorke says. “And parents are amazed. They’ll say, ‘She’s a whole new person since she came home.’ ”

Another signature education program offered by the Lighthouse is Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCIVIS), a one-week residential program held each September at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Lighthouse covers tuition for 30 U.S. and 20 international students aged 9-18 to participate in one of six programs geared toward their interests, learning through state-of-the-art simulations, experiments, and robotics exercises.

SCIVIS uses space to excite and educate students in the fields of math, science and technology, teaching teamwork, self-confidence, and communication skills. “Kids want to come back every year,” Yorke says.

In addition, the Lighthouse offers a variety of services to support young people who are blind, including braille tutoring for students and parents; a night orientation and mobility program to help students attain skills to travel safely after dark; summer jobs for legally blind students aged 16 and older; recreational and developmental summer camps; and The Braille Box, a quarterly subscription-style box designed to help students practice their braille reading skills.

“If young people who are blind have unmet needs, we try to address them through outreach,” Yorke explains. “I’ve met such incredible people through these programs. Watching people go through life-changing experiences is such a privilege.”