In a shady, secluded corner of Uptown near Audubon Park, a multimillion-dollar manufacturing facility daily produces and assembles tens of thousands of products for shipment across the country and around the world. Jobs created by the not-for-profit organization allow individuals who are blind, visually impaired, hard-of-hearing or deaf to earn better than minimum-wage salaries with full benefits, allowing them to be productive and independent.
Now in its 100th year, Lighthouse Louisiana represents a new, untapped resource, according to a new study. A recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity showed that employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities are highly motivated, dependable and productive.
“The heart of our mission is to create jobs for people — not robots. We don’t do it for a profit,” said Erin McQuade Wright, vice president of development and communications.
David Green, a 10-year Lighthouse employee, takes considerable pride in manually inspecting the assembly of single-fold, brown paper towels, which are bundled, bound and packed into containers for shipment to U.S. military bases overseas.
Huge rolls of paper, four feet wide, are trucked to New Orleans from Alabama where they are trimmed to size on a chop-saw. The giant machinery might appear to pose a safety hazard, but the records show Lighthouse has challenged those perceptions, McQuade Wright said.
For the Navy Prime Program, workers wrap plates in plastic, repacking and boxing them for distribution. Everything is biodegradable for the rare instance a box might accidentally get dumped into the ocean.
“They are all paper products so they won’t affect the marine life. The fish will be OK,” Green commented.
Workers who are blind or visually impaired just need to be shown the procedures by touch once or twice and then they’ve got it, McQuade Wright said.
With certified manufacturing facilities in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Gulfport, Mississippi, the Lighthouse is the largest employer of people who are blind in the state of Louisiana.
The U.S. government has always been Lighthouse Louisiana’s biggest customer for product manufacturing, accounting for $43 million in revenue in 2010, but those contracts have steadily declined as the military has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan.
One of the most promising initiatives in recent years is the production of a compostable paper cup made at Lighthouse Louisiana in Baton Rouge. Natco Food Services distributes the hot and cold cups to restaurants, hotels and other businesses that want to save money while reducing their impact on the environment. Commercial 6-color custom printed cups are also made on-site.
“We have been working with Lighthouse Louisiana for over a year now. They have delivered a quality product to us time after time,” said Dana Roos, assistant vice president of Heartland Food Products, which purchases paper cups. “The work they do for the community its tremendous.”
In addition to employing people with disabilities, Lighthouse Louisiana helps others find jobs at local businesses, which receive a tax break. For some workers, it is the first job they have ever had, McQuade Wright said.
The organization holds life skill classes to help people learn to operate microwaves, ovens and other household appliances and a Low Vision clinic that can help retrain the brain to maximize diminishing sight. Lighthouse Louisiana also has a summer camp to introduce children who are visually impaired to activities they might not otherwise be able to experience.