Local nonprofit a guiding light for people who are blind

Tools

Seattle Lighthouse employee Christopher Loomis demonstrates the specially adapted robotic equipment he uses to manufacture aircraft parts.

By Travis Mayfield

Initially I agreed to tour The Seattle Lighthouse simply because my friend was just elected to the board of trustees.

Then she told me, “You know they make canteens for the Army and precision aircraft parts for Boeing?”

That got my attention.

You see, The Seattle Lighthouse is a private nonprofit agency that employs, supports and trains people who are blind, Deaf-Blind and blind with other disabilities.

That’s right, one of the suppliers for the Pentagon and Boeing employs hundreds of people who are blind.

Upon arriving at the headquarters/industrial complex in Southeast Seattle, I was greeted by Lighthouse CEO Kirk Adams. Adams himself is fully blind, and has been since kindergarten.

To call this guy a business genius would be an understatement. In just the past few years, he’s opened a Spokane campus and grown it from three employees to 45. At the same time, Adams has led an effort to bid for and land very competitive contracts from private enterprise.  In other words, his employees who are blind, Deaf-Blind and blind with other disabilities are competing with other companies who have far fewer (or no) employees who are blind. And they’re winning on quality and price – a remarkable and admirable feat.

Not a charity, but a ray of hope

As the tour began, I started to understand the philosophy of the Lighthouse. The goal is that each employee be provided with whatever support he or she needs to be successful in the workplace. This isn’t charity; this is a competitive business and employment environment to empower and enable an incredibly underserved community in our area.

Lighthouse provides sign language interpreting, staff mobility and technology adapted specifically for the visually-impaired.

The first stop on the tour was the aircraft parts production floor. Looking around, anyone could think they were inside a Boeing assembly line. Employees and machines were hard at work crafting precision parts, using sophisticated equipment and churning out made-to-order parts for planes we all rely on constantly.

We stopped and chatted with one of the employees on the line. Christopher Loomis told us he had been an auto mechanic for years in the Midwest, but was ultimately fired because his eyesight had become so poor. Loomis, who is deaf as well, had heard about the Seattle Lighthouse and traveled across the country to knock on the Lighthouse’s door and ask for a job. He was an obvious fit,  and an incredibly quick learner. Now he travels each day from Shelton home to Seattle to make these aircraft parts. 

I can’t imagine that commute and, I have my full eyesight. Now imagine the buses, trains and transfers involved for this man. Not only does that speak to his dedication to this job, but to the job and the employer as well.

In the Lighthouse’s computer lab,  employees train other employees on using specially- equipped computers. The software (called JAWS) speaks the commands and reads the on-screen text out loud (or in earphones). There are specially marked keyboards and braille display devices. There are more than 100 computer workstations adapted for use by visually impaired folk throughout the campus.

Malissa’s guiding light

At the canteen assembly floor, we saw employees were working to fill the latest Pentagon contract for Army canteens as well as large plastic mess spoons.

We met Malissa, whose smile lit up the room when I told her I worked at KOMO.

“Are you on the radio?” she asked.

“I am, yes.” I told her.

She then told me all about the internships she had done for radio stations around the area. With her crisp enunciation and easy-to-follow delivery, it was clear why she loved radio and why she had found so much success training others.

“One of the unique things about the Lighthouse is that people who are blind train other people who are blind,” she told us.

Spatial awareness can be an issue for someone who has been blind since birth. Having trainers who understand that and know how to best compensate is one of the many reasons employees here are so highly skilled.

We met other employees working on spreadsheets and making outbound marketing and sales calls. We saw the Fragrant Garden, a place to relax and reflect and enjoy the beautiful scents of nature.

Lighthouse reflections

The Seattle Lighthouse has been around since 1918 and currently employs more than 300 people. Along with jobs, the nonprofit also does outreach work and offers education to the larger community. They organize an internationally-recognized retreat out on the Hood Canal, as well as classes and programs at local elementary schools.

Since driving away from the Lighthouse earlier this week, I have been pondering the nature of sight, and what it means to be blessed with the ability to see. I have also thought a lot about the empowering miracles this organization and its people perform on a daily basis.

I don’t have a pithy bottom line or anecdotal ending to this blog post. Instead, I can only say I was moved to write about the Lighthouse and the best way I can thank this group of true heroes is to recognize them in a public way.

Congratulations to the Lighthouse of Seattle. May your quiet work continue to shine as a steady guide of true nobility for this region and the people who call it home.

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For more information about the Seattle Lighthouse please visit their website SeattleLighthouse.org

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