All the way to Afghanistan, Westmoreland County Blind Association makes impact

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan are wearing the U.S. Army's Generation III Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System, produced on Main Street in Greensburg by the Westmoreland County Blind Association.

The association embarked on the new contract several months ago to produce the 93 percent polyester, 7 percent Spandex waffle-design shirts for the soldiers. The association workshop division employs 53 individuals who assist in manufacturing the product.

“It's the most difficult product we make because there's a lot of elasticity to it,” said Ray Smith, director of manufacturing at the association for two years. “I think they take great pride that they're making products for our soldiers.”

The extreme-weather clothing is only one service offered by the association. Its employees manufacture textiles for government and private businesses. Additional Department of Defense contracts include a Flyer's Kit Bag for chemical and biological warfare, Joint Services Lists Bags and U.S. Navy handkerchiefs.

The Work Activity Center bustles with 66 vision-impaired, hearing-impaired or mentally challenged workers as they perform various tasks — destroying computer hard drives, mailing boxes and packaging manufactured products.

The Shredding Department alone shreds more than 300 pounds a day. It ships 43,000 pounds to a paper mill in Wisconsin where it is used for tissues, toilet paper and paper towels.

The impressive custom embroidery department is all computerized and serves clients such as Arnold Palmer, Greater Latrobe School District, Luther Ford Lincoln Mercury and 84 Lumber.

The specialized services department offers caseworkers dedicated to going to the homes of blind clients and taking them to doctors' appointments, grocery shopping and other errands.

In the meantime, the association focuses on blindness prevention by providing screenings in elementary schools and educational information to the elderly and others who are experiencing vision issues.

The association has provided employment, services and programming to the blind in Westmoreland County since 1948. The nonprofit has a 14-member board of directors whose goal is to maintain independence and a high quality of life for association clients.

The association offers a rigorous training program to give the visually impaired the chance to learn as many job skills as possible. There are 140 people at the association every day, although some are part-time workers. The average age group is 50 to 69.

“The older group is the most reliable,” said Lawrence Helkowski, president and CEO of the association. “Young people don't want to do manual labor. They want to sit at the computer. It's hard to find people who want to work and have these skills.” Helkowski has been at the head of the association for the last 11 years.

He said he had his own learning curve when he came from Peoples Gas to work with the visually impaired population.

For example, he had to realize he couldn't post signs around the office. And he had to learn to touch someone gently on the arm when speaking to them. Now workers recognize him immediately when he walks into a room by the sound of his shoes, he said.

Helkowski said the rewards of working at the association are endless. At the end of the day, he feels as though he's made a small difference.

Smith agrees.

“I may have book smarts, but these people are teaching me,” he said. “Not one management course I took in grad school prepared me to work with these folks. You have to be sensitive to their limitations and create a good family atmosphere.”

Tim Miller, director of programs and operations, has been with the association since 1987.

He has seen it go through many changes and says he has never been bored working there. Miller is visually impaired, but that is hard to tell when he interacts with the workers. The employees hug him, high-five him and, obviously, respect him.

Although Miller became legally blind at age 11, it was never a hindrance. He holds a master's degree in social work.

“A lot of people tell you you can't do stuff ... and that just kind of motivated me,” he said.

His enthusiasm is infectious as he interacts with the workers.

He praises Melanie Emerick, 23, who assembles 500 boxes a day — or 10,000 a month. She reminds Miller it's her birthday next month, as he has a habit of buying the worker's lunch for their birthdays.

“I like everything about working here,” Emerick said.

Bobby Zilen, 41, has worked at the association for the last five years and said he enjoys working with the people there.

For Zilen, learning the machines was relatively easy. “Some people got it, and some don't,” he said.

Smith believes the combination of dedication from the workers and the staff truly makes the association top notch.

“I believe we're one of the best-kept secrets of employers in Westmoreland County,” he said.

Michele Stewardson is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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