David Hudnall 2017-03-20 14:11:16
A thrift store that employs the visually impaired is part of a Lions-founded complex that serves the blind in multiple ways. A straight line runs up the back of Nathan Southern’s neck, from his shoulders into his skull, where it disappears beneath his close-cropped blond hair. The scar is decades old, the result of an emergency surgery he had at the age of 10 to remove a brain tumor. The operation severely damaged his optic nerve. Over the years—Southern is now 37—his vision improved, but only marginally, and it seems to have plateaued of late. Southern thinks his current vision is probably as good as it’s likely to get. Nathan Southern has limited vision but manages the Slightly Worn Thrift Shop in Raleigh. “I can see you,” he tells me one recent afternoon. “But I can’t see your eye color, and the area around you is blurry. I can’t drive. I can’t read regular-size print.” Southern was showing me around Sightly Worn Thrift Store in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is the manager. The shop is located on an industrial-commercial corridor on the outskirts of the Raleigh Beltline; its neighbors include a plumbing supply company, a tile distributor and an aluminum manufacturer. Not exactly a retail destination, but for Southern, the lack of foot traffic gives him a little bit of breathing room. The everyday duties of running a shop take a little longer for him than they would for a fully sighted person. “The biggest challenge for me is reading the tags on shirts and other clothing, to check for size when organizing the racks,” he says. “The type is always so small. I do have equipment to see it, but someone with ordinary vision could sort five shirts in the time it takes me to do one. Or cleaning—there could be a book or a piece of trash in the middle of the aisle, and I wouldn’t know it. I have to really crouch down to see those kinds of things.” Southern is from upstate New York. He moved to the South after his sisters relocated to North Carolina and reported back that the weather offered a preferable alternative to the frosty slogs of northeast winters. He attended Johnston Community College, where he earned a degree in advertising and graphic design. After graduating, he worked for five years in a variety of positions: manufacturing, shipping, production. Then, last year, the state’s Division of Services for the Blind connected him with Sightly Worn. Opened in 2015, the store is operated by the RLCB (formerly known as the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind). Southern found he liked the retail quality of the job. And he enjoyed helping mentor the store’s other visually impaired employees, who come from the nearby Governor Morehead School for the Blind. “Oftentimes, it’s their first job, and they’ve never really had to think about basic things like transportation and scheduling their time—getting here on time, getting a ride to work or techniques for working on your own,” Southern says. “So I look at it as part of my responsibility to guide them along with that stuff.” Then there are issues more specific to working in a thrift store. “I show them how to feel the difference between a shirt and a skirt, how to hang a dress, which hanger to use and how to face the hanger,” he says. A slice of light moves across the store: a customer is coming through the door. Southern leaves the break room area where we were sitting to greet her, and I stroll the aisles, browsing the racks of books, clothes and appliances. Several local Lions clubs, as well as individuals, donate the goods, priced lower than they would be at a typical thrift shop. In the corner of the store is a section devoted to photography— lots of framed photos and prints. The section is Southern’s pet project. He studied photography at Johnston, and it remains a hobby. He shows me some photos he’d taken with his cell phone: streetscapes, a country church. He swipes through his photo gallery, holding the phone close to his eye, like a telescope. He arrives at the one he was looking for, a shot of downtown Raleigh at night, taken from a hotel balcony. He pulls back and shows it to me. “I try to make sure they’re interesting or dramatic in some way,” he says. “I try to show what I see.” Two doors down from Sightly Worn, in the same building, are the offices of RLCB, Inc. The organization has a rich history that stretches back to 1966 when three members of the Raleigh Host Lions Club, Grady Galloway, Bill Waters and Earl Jennings, decided Raleigh needed a place dedicated to providing training and other services such as vision tests for blind individuals seeking employment in the labor market. All three men also served on the State Commission for the Blind, which at the time was sending people up to Virginia for such training and assistance. They convinced the Lions to write a $15,000 check to fund such a program for a year. A board was formed, an executive director appointed and the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind was born. The clinic employed a nurse and optometrist to serve the blind. Over the years, the organization has evolved into a much larger and more varied beast. It’s no longer a clinic, and it’s no longer technically a Lions operation. But all the board directors of the RLCB belong to the Raleigh Host Lions Club. “Myself and many of my senior staff are Lions,” says Janet Griffey, president/CEO of the RLCB. “Those values are very much still a part of the culture here, even though we’re technically RLCB, Inc. now.” The profits from the thrift store go straight to the RLCB, which then puts it toward technology training for blind people in the community at the RLCB Technology Lab. These days, RLCB provides not just job training but also jobs. As an associated agency of the National Industries for the Blind, it receives federal contracts to produce goods for the U.S. military and runs seven base stores across the country—in Alaska, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina. Down the highway, at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, service members can obtain uniforms, underwear, socks, hats, and flight suits from visually impaired employees of RLCB. Lion Janet Griffey, executive director of RLCB, confers with Ricky Covington, a production specialist in the manufacturing department. “We’re a true service to the military,” Griffey says. In the space between Sightly Worn and the administrative offices where Griffey works is RLCB’s manufacturing department. Here, production manager Eliezer Pacheco oversees several legally blind employees as they assemble, package and distribute products RLCB is contracted to manufacture. The jobs pay a good wage of between $15 and $22 an hour. “There’s very little turnover,” Griffey says. RLBC provides warehouse services for Zoetis, a plant and animal science company that was formerly a Pfizer subsidiary, and cuts bootlaces for IronLace, a Canadian maker of extra-tough strings. “I call them MacGyver laces,” Pacheco says. “They can pull a truck. We do them here and ship them in bulk to Canada.” A blind employee named David Phillips sits at a work station, cutting the laces according to the various lengths requested. Each size possibility, whether 36 inches, 45 inches or 54 inches, is preset on a “jig” on the table before him, allowing Phillips to accurately and repeatedly produce the right sizes without the use of his eyes. A half dozen visually impaired employees are spread out across the room in front of similar work stations. Philips was named Employee of the Year at RLCB in 2015, which meant a free trip to the National Industries for the Blind ceremony in Washington. “It was one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life,” Phillips says. “The employees of the year from all the other NIB organizations are honored together,” Griffey says. “And we go out on a boat on the Potomac. We maybe even had a few beers; I can’t remember.” The thrift shop opened two years ago. Phillips grinned. “Maybe,” he says. Nominees for 2016 Employee of the Year would be announced the following week, Griffey said, at a party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the RLCB. “We’ve been planning for it the last six months,” Griffey says. “I think it’s going to be quite a celebration.” It is indeed. Representatives from the offices of North Carolina’s three highest-ranking officials—Governor Pat Mc- Crory, U.S. Senator Richard Burr and U.S. Senator Thom Tills—are on hand, as are four pilots from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, decked out in full navy-blue regalia and holding rifles. Huge blue and gold balloons hang from the ceiling of the technology lab, where most days RLCB employees are instructing visually impaired North Carolinians on how to use the latest computer programs and operating systems. Today, though, classes have been canceled. Sharon Benton, a blind former employee of RLCB who went on to work for the city of Raleigh, kicks off the ceremony by singing the national anthem. Noting that he’d grown up in Raleigh and had long been aware of the good the RLCB has done in the community, Jimmy Broughton, a top aide to McCrory, delivers McCrory’s proclamation recognizing the organization. Toward the end of the ceremony, after words from Griffey, Morehead superintendent Barbria Bacon and NIB president and CEO Kevin Lynch, a man named James Benton rises and slowly makes his way toward the podium, a white cane guiding him on his way. I don’t mind being blind, but sometimes I do struggle with looking like I’m blind,” Benton says, to laughs. In many ways, Benton, an African-American man in his 50s, personifies the ambitions of RLCB. He came onboard in 1984, two years after his wife, Sharon (who sang the national anthem) joined. At the time he was in college, at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. “They [RLCB] gave me my first real work experience,” Benton tells me a week after the anniversary party. “Like a lot of visually impaired people in those days, I couldn’t find anywhere else in the community to work.” Benton started off in commercial assembly. He used a crimper to put creases in military straps. He did seamstress work. He cleaned and bagged boxing pillows. In 1989, he moved on to work at Holiday Inn, working over the next 10 years in customer support and guest services (working the phones is an ideal position for the blind) before being promoted to ADA (American Disabilities Act) representative for the company. “I made sure our hotels had the right accommodations for people who were significantly disabled,” Benton says. After a stint in Salt Lake City, he ended up back in North Carolina, working for the Division of Services for the Blind. In addition to serving on the RLCB board of directors, he’s now a transition counselor for the blind, a role that requires him to be a job coach, job dealer and job skills trainer for visually impaired people in Raleigh and several surrounding counties. Over the last 18 years, he has connected hundreds of blind North Carolinians with jobs that improved their lives. But, as he tells the crowd at the anniversary celebration, the work is far from over. “Seven out of ten visually impaired people in this country are unemployed,” Benton says, reading braille from the podium. “That’s why I’m so grateful to the RLCB for providing opportunities for so many of us like myself. RLCB continues to open doors. And it continues to open eyes.” Extra Digital Content Read how Lions helped the blind in Tulsa, Oklahoma, support themselves through Broomtown, USA, (April 1952 LION).
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