Just a few months ago, employees at the Austin Lighthouse for the Blind would never have dreamed that the hand sanitizers and soaps they produce would become key weapons in the fight against one of the most formidable foes our nation has ever faced.
But as the nationwide threat from the coronavirus became more apparent, the agency started making plans for increasing production and shipments beyond the approximately 100,000 bottles of GoJo and Purell hand sanitizers it produced each month (1.2 million bottles annually).
Given that track record, the NIB associated nonprofit agency was a natural choice for federal and state officials to turn to when they needed more of these products to help cope with the coronavirus.
Established in 1934 as the Travis Association for the Blind but known as the Austin Lighthouse, the agency provides a broad array of services, including vocational opportunities, for Texans who are blind.
“So far, we have more than tripled our normal output of hand sanitizers and soap,” says Jim Meehan, Austin Lighthouse president and CEO. To accomplish this, the agency slowed production in other areas and transferred staff members to hand sanitizer production.
“We have increased staffing from 32 people to 96 and the number of production lines from 3 to 8, as well as investing in additional equipment to increase our daily capacity,” he explains.
The products are shipped to federal agencies, Texas state agencies, Austin government offices, U.S. military bases, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Veterans Affairs hospitals, and the Department of Homeland Security.
In addition, Meehan’s team is producing cloth face masks.
“We have provided at least one face mask to every employee, plus hundreds to area nonprofits like Central Texas Food Bank, Boys & Girls Club, Meals-on-Wheels and a local shelter for women and children,” he says.
Designated by both the federal and Austin city governments as an essential business, the Lighthouse has been able to keep 250 employees who are blind working, approximately 120 of whom are engaged in the production of hand sanitizer, dispensers, and cloth masks.
Like his counterparts around the country, Meehan puts a premium on the safety and well-being of his employees.
“Everyone is screened and their temperatures are taken upon entering our buildings,” he says, adding that all work stations, lunch room, and break room tables have been set apart to provide at least six feet of separation.
Additional custodians have come on board to disinfect spaces and extra hand sanitizer dispensers have been placed in high traffic areas.
“To keep our staff fully informed, we provide videos featuring frequent company and COVID-19 action updates and stream those to all our facilities,” Meehan says.
Among the employees who have stepped up and delivered is Joe Perez, a warehouse specialist who lost his eyesight at age 56. Perez credits technological innovations like the voice-activated Bluetooth headset that helps him do his job with maximum efficiency.
“The technology is awesome,” Perez said. “It allows me to travel through the warehouse by myself, pick up and drop off boxes, then return to the main shipping area.”
Perez appreciates the Lighthouse for not only providing him with steady employment, but for helping him learn additional skills that he can use in other jobs.
Meehan appreciates Perez and the whole team, “I am so proud of them for stepping up and delivering when their community and their country needed them most.”