A walk through Lions Volunteer Blind Industries' 96,000 square-foot main facility in Morristown, Tenn., yields a true understanding of the non-profit organization's 63-year long dedication “to provide blind people the dignity of independence through employment.” The faces of the many workers diligently sewing or assembling products shine with pride and, if asked, any of them will tell you why: They may have lost their sight (or suffer from another disability), but they haven't lost their jobs nor their self-worth.
While sewing a portion of Army-issued sweatpants, Mark Sheridan, a Morristown native and LVBI employee for nearly 28 years, recalled the car accident which took his once 20/20 vision at the age of 19.
Then, newly blind, Sheridan said he was happy to hear about LVBI in his own hometown. He contacted their rehabilitation center, spoke to a counselor and discovered the organization's independent living and job-training program. Sheridan said that, since that time, he's worked “all sorts of jobs” for LVBI including sewing mattresses, making paper towels, and constructing materials used in Desert Storm.
Volunteer Blind Industries was founded by four members of the Johnson City Lions Club in 1951. The “men of vision” saw a need within the community and sought a means to employ blind and visually-impaired people.
With the help of the Lions Club gentlemen and their friend, seven individuals without the sense of sight began assembling mattresses in the basement of a Johnson City church. As word spread and business grew, however, operations were moved in 1956 to LVBI's current Morristown location at 758 West Morris Boulevard. LVBI later expanded in 1988 and reopened in Johnson City at 2232 Watauga Road.
In December 2013, LVBI expanded even further by opening a third retail facility on East Stone Drive in Kingsport, Tenn. (next to Eastman Credit Union, across from Target).
This is the first time that “[we've] branched out and opened a location that's away from one of our main facilities,” LVBI Assistant Executive Director Trevor Southerland explained. “As our third factory direct mattress store, the Kingsport establishment consists of a showroom with 17 styles of bedding. They range from traditional innerspring two-sided mattresses to memory gel foam, and adjustable bedding.
The Johnson City location is not only used for retail mattress sale but the creation of military helmet covers, and houses a contact center. The Morristown facility, which includes work space, a showroom and an adjacent 30,000 square-foot warehouse (126, 000 square feet total), is responsible for the manufacture, packaging and shipment of all LVBI products.
LVBI's products are diverse in their market appeal and thus attract an equally diverse clientele - whether it be through retail or what Southerland referred to as “package room customers” like the military, and medical, government and collegiate entities.
Items produced by LVBI include: military helmet covers (100 percent of Marine helmet covers are made by LVBI, along with 50 percent of the Army's and 50 percent of the Navy's), IPFU Army sweatpants (in 30 sizes), paper towels for GSA (General Services Administration), 15 styles of mattresses (and mattress pads) in retail and custom sizes, bedding accessories (sheets, pillow cases, bed encasements, etc.), tote bags, Lions Club member vests, and leg wraps for horses.
The main commodities of the non-profit, however, continue to be the mattresses and employment in general.
Southerland said all bedding components used in manufacturing LVBI mattresses are made in the United States and the mattresses are fully assembled in Morristown “from beginning to end.”
Southerland explained that nothing is automated in-house at LVBI so as to create more jobs for the visually-impaired and disabled. LVBI currently employs 135 people total at their three locations, and 70 of those are disabled. Southerland said some jobs aren't blind-friendly so LVBI hires other disabled persons to fill those positions.
As far as LVBI employees go, Southerland said some were once fully-functional with careers before an accident or disease left them disabled.
Through LVBI's on-site job training and rehabilitation programs, disabled employees (especially the blind) are taught to regain their critical independent life skills such as cooking, cleaning, traveling, etc., before being trained to perform a specific task based on their skills assessment test and career interest. Having been truly cared for by LVBI, many workers have maintained their employment with them 10, 20, sometimes 30 years. And, as Southerland pointed out, for a visitor walking through the warehouse, it's extremely difficult to tell the blind employees from those who can see.
The Johnson City location is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. VBI’s Mattress Factory Outlet Stores in Kingsport and Morristown are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday. For more information on Lions Volunteer Blind Industries, visit them at http://lvbi.org or call (423) 586-3922.