San Antonio Lighthouse Safety Masks Help in Coronavirus Fight

Employees who are blind at sewing machines wearing masks

When the calls for help came in, he couldn’t say no. That’s how Mike Gilliam, CEO and President of the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired, describes his response to pleas from University Hospital and the Southwest Research Institute to start making washable, reusable cloth masks for local healthcare professionals fighting the coronavirus.

“I explained that we were already committed to fulfilling our contractual obligation to deliver military uniforms and helmet chinstraps to our Army and Air Force customers,” Gilliam recalls. “But I knew that we couldn’t turn them down, especially during this national emergency.”

Now Lighthouse employees who are blind and visually impaired have added making masks to their already busy days manufacturing military apparel and helmets.

To make it all happen, the Lighthouse needed to quickly implement some major changes, including readjusting workspaces and reassigning several employees.

To increase mask production, Gilliam added temporary team members and moved a few existing trained sewers and others into the group as well. Currently, 13 people are involved in the production process. To make the most of existing resources, the team is utilizing some out-dated material previously used to make military uniforms. 

The changes worked! To date the Lighthouse, along with partners Jon Hart Design and Dixie Flag Company, has provided nearly 10,000 masks, increasing production to 1,500 per day. The cloth masks go to medical clinics, local businesses, doctor’s offices, and the general public, as well as Lighthouse team members and their families.

Gilliam credits the agency’s success to the committed, “can-do” attitude of the Lighthouse Team. “These days, it’s our job to make life better and safer for all San Antonians.”

Through it all, Gilliam’s top goal has been ensuring the safety of his team.

“We needed to do everything we could to protect the personal and financial health of our Lighthouse Family,” Gilliam explains. “We had to prevent exposure to the virus, which could have resulted in a total shutdown, while at the same time meeting our ever-increasing customer commitments.”

To lessen the chance of disease spread in the workplace, employees with other risk factors were sent home to telework when possible. Concerned about the economic toll the coronavirus could take if an employee got sick, Gilliam obtained board approval to provide five extra days of paid time off to all team members.

“This measure, along with their existing time off plus the federal government stimulus checks, should enable a majority of our people to receive the equivalent of full pay for roughly four to six weeks,” he said.

To ensure the well-being of staff continuing to work at the Lighthouse, everyone wears masks and has their temperatures taken upon entering the facility. Social distancing is also strictly enforced.

Finally, Gilliam says cleaning crews are keeping the Lighthouse virtually spotless.

“I wish that my own home was kept as clean,” he says, “but please don’t tell my wife I said that.”