All the way to Afghanistan, Westmoreland County Blind Association makes impact
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.
“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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Kobani emerges as pivot point
- Robinson: Rooney retains North Side roots
- Starkey: Chryst missed his only shot
- Penn State players regroup amid losing streak
- Pitt notebook: Conner quietly surpasses 1,000 yards rushing
- Penguins’ Crosby OK with Neal comments about trade
- Steelers notebook: Ex-Steeler Sanders living up to his word
- Georgia Tech runs all over mistake-prone Pitt
- Play to watch: Colts, Luck like to confuse defenses
- Corbett vows to protect coal industry at Armstrong County rally
- Penn State notebook: Dieffenbach’s season debut remains on hold