For NIB associated nonprofit agency Bestwork Industries for the Blind, 2023 is full of promise. Bestwork is diversifying from a successful textile manufacturing facility making uniform apparel for the U.S. military into a multi-faceted operation pursuing new lines of business and initiating rehabilitation services.
Founded in 1981 by WWII veteran Jim Varsaci, who lost his sight in battle, Bestwork secured its first federal government contract to make the silk U.S. Navy “Crackerjack” neckerchief in the years that followed. Today, the agency is a self-sustaining, multi-million-dollar enterprise engaging in textile manufacturing and sewing, paper converting, packing, and warehousing and distribution. It provides employment for 100 people in a 50,000-square-foot facility located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
After a busy year laying a foundation for growth with a new leadership team and fresh strategic plan, Bestwork President and CEO Jon Katz, who assumed the role in July 2021, is eager to expand the agency’s capabilities to packaging, kitting, and light assembly projects while creating a framework for knowledge-based jobs in human resources, sales, and marketing. Equally important is the transition to a full-scale social enterprise.
“We’re seeing the transition begin,” Katz says. “Our vision is materializing, and the pieces are coming together.” So far, diversification efforts have led to new jobs and upward mobility for employees who are blind in e-commerce, accounting, and recruiting, he notes.
Diversifying will allow Bestwork to focus on developing and pursuing opportunities, such as document scanning and digital imaging, call center services, and knowledge-based services, explains Tom Black, vice president of products and business services. He looks forward to creating additional jobs and opportunities for upward mobility in knowledge-based work and light assembly to provide existing employees and new hires an opportunity to develop new skill sets.
As part of NIB’s mentoring program, Bestwork is sending eight employees to Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Washington, D.C., for training in document scanning and digital imaging. “We hope to set up a scanning/imaging operation in the second quarter of 2023,” Black says.
The new light assembly operation recently won its first non-apparel contract, assembling U.S. Air Force Achievement Award medal sets. Negotiations are underway for assembly of similar medal sets for the Navy and Marine Corps, Black added. Bestwork also is working with ACCSES New Jersey, the state central nonprofit agency that advocates for greater opportunities for people with disabilities, to identify suitable state contracts to pursue.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR KNOWLEDGE-BASED WORK
Realizing another significant goal, in November 2022 the agency successfully launched BestworkSupplyCenter.com, an e-commerce platform that allows businesses to place online orders for office products, cleaning supplies, safety products, and furniture. The project provided entry into knowledge-based customer service work for two employees who previously worked in textiles, says Greg Pereira, senior director of finance, accounting, and operations. “Diversification efforts are offering new opportunities to our staff members, allowing everyone to see what people who are blind are capable of and how they can contribute.”
E-commerce Customer Service Associate David Levin joined Bestwork as a sewing machine operator in 2018 and relishes the new opportunities the e-commerce platform offers. “We faced some challenges in setting up the platform, but we worked through them. I’m focused on making the site successful and giving every customer a great experience,” he says.
“The agency is expanding and I’m especially glad for the opportunity to move to the corporate side of things. I’ve got good co-workers, good hours, and room to advance,” says Levin, who spends his free time performing stand-up comedy in Philadelphia and New York City.
In 2022, the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI) recertified Bestwork as a place of competitive, integrated employment. The certification allows CBVI to refer clients to the agency for jobs, Katz explains. Bestwork is also partnering with state, local, and private organizations to implement a high school transition program that will help students who are visually impaired explore employment opportunities through internships.
Wilfredo Martinez, a sewing machine operator, also works as a recruiter for the agency, contacting vocational rehabilitation centers about clients who may be interested in employment at Bestwork. Known as the agency’s “Swiss Army knife,” Martinez was hired by Varsaci in 1988. “Jim taught me to trust my hands,” he says. “Conversations with him really changed my life.”
Producing military apparel for U.S. troops is “such a powerful thing. I used to say my proudest moment was getting employed here,” he says, but that changed in October, when he served as a keynote speaker at a National Disability Employment Awareness Month program hosted by Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support.
Calling the speaking engagement “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done” Martinez says he often advises people who are blind to emulate a soldier’s can-do attitude. “Be one of the brave men and women who give it their best try before they say they can’t do something. Don’t handicap yourself.”
In his role as a recruiter, Martinez tells prospective employees about the special relationships co-workers at Bestwork share. “We have an unbreakable bond, a brotherhood,” he says. “It’s truly an awesome experience working here, seeing the changes and growing opportunities in the last couple of years. I’m looking forward to another 20 years!”
LAUNCHING REHABILITATION SERVICES
Noting that people who are blind or visually impaired are underserved in Southern New Jersey, Katz says Bestwork is partnering with state agencies and low-vision experts to create a sight center that will offer a low vision clinic as well as assistive technology and rehabilitation services. The goal is to provide training in orientation and mobility, life and business skills, and adaptive technology, as well as referrals to specialists when needed.
Sewing machine operator Arlene Still, who joined NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program in 2022, has a first-hand understanding of the needs of the community. Her own experience fuels a passion for educating the public about issues faced by people who are blind.
After losing her eyesight in 2007, Still received no referrals to organizations that could provide training or rehabilitation services. “I stayed home for five years, afraid to leave my house,” she recalls. When CBVI made a home visit to provide a Kindle, she began to recover her independence. The agency adapted household appliances to make them accessible and encouraged Still to attend a residential rehabilitation program. She then went back to college and earned a second degree in drug and alcohol counseling before joining Bestwork.
“It’s been wonderful to recover my independence and to see other people doing the same, to see their persistence,” Still says. “Bestwork’s diversification efforts are providing a lot more opportunities for employees who are blind. It’s a great place to work.”
Katz has similar feelings about the agency and its work. “This is an uplifting experience, seeing the amazing men and women working here. Many have had to overcome a lot of hardships to get where they are, but they continue to do their best every day.”
As the state’s largest employer of people who are blind, the new leadership team at Bestwork has ambitious plans for the future. The team will be doing its best to expand the support and opportunities available to people in New Jersey who are blind or visually impaired.