Giving blind employees a sense of self-worth by creating something for America’s warfighters was one Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support senior leader’s impression of a local military clothing manufacturer.
Procurement Process Support Director Navy Capt. Gerald Raia visited Bestwork Industries for the Blind in Cherry Hill, New Jersey September 28, along with C&T Director Air Force Col. Lawrence Hicks and Director of Supplier Operations Steve Merch.
“I’m always inspired when I go to an organization that has employees with special needs,” Raia said. “It’s humbling to see the dedication and loyalty these employees have and the sense of worth that they feel creating something that we may take for granted.”
Bestwork is a not-for-profit agency affiliated with the National Industries for the Blind. Bestwork currently produces Navy fleece jackets and mock t-shirts, Army cold weather shirts and small parts of women’s airman battle uniform pants.
More than half of Bestwork’s 82 employees are visually impaired, Bestwork Chief Operating Officer Belinda Moore said. America’s blind population makes up the largest demographic of joblessness with a 70 percent unemployment rate, she added.
The visit took place days before the beginning of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. The senior leaders met with Bestwork personnel and toured the production line, staffed by mostly blind or visually impaired employees.
Raia and Hicks were impressed with the synergy of employees on the production line. Hicks described their lack of sight as an afterthought based on how proficiently they performed production operations, including sewing and pressing clothing items.
“The employees are impressive,” Hicks said. “For me, it was motivating and encouraging to see the products that we’re purchasing; where they start, and the care and pride that the employees are putting into the work that they’re doing.”
James Woodson has been visually impaired his entire life and totally blind since age 16. He has worked as a machine operator at Bestwork for eight years and holds a master’s degree in counseling from The University of Scranton.
“My favorite thing about working here is it’s a quality workplace,” Woodson said. “They give their employees lots of support and help, and I’ve done different jobs here over the years. I enjoy the challenge of learning different tasks.”
Work stations are specially designed to accommodate the workers, including braille guides on the machinery.
Moore explained that the quality of Bestwork’s products reflects the same standards as companies with sighted workers.
“As a group, we are always focused on improving our delivery, which is excellent,” Moore said, “and also improving quality, which is great, and trying to get better.”
Merch confirmed DLA’s quality standards are the same for all suppliers.
“We have the same set of expectations for Bestwork as we would for any other company,” Merch said. “The standard is the standard. We have a really good working relationship with Bestwork.”
C&T staff communicate with Bestwork on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to ensure support, he said.
“It’s always good to be able to come out and see them and meet face-to-face,” Merch said. “What’s impressive is when you look at the people on the production line there, the fluidity of how they perform the functions so smoothly and efficiently.”
The visit was the first time Hicks and Raia visited a DLA manufacturer since joining the organization approximately two months ago.