© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Charlotte manufacturer offers paycheck and independence to those who are blind

Alfred Gardner, a veteran, has worked at Lions Services for 15 years. He sews straps for hydration carriers soldiers will use.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Alfred Gardner, a veteran, has worked at Lions Services for 15 years. He sews straps for hydration carriers soldiers will use.

A nonprofit textile manufacturer called Lions Services in Charlotte has multimillion-dollar contracts to produce gear for the U.S. military, such as backpacks and hydration carriers. The meticulous sewing is done by a workforce that is mostly blind or visually impaired.   

Cassidy Hooper, 28, headed to grab a drink before going to her workstation. With her cane, she followed a thin piece of Velcro on the floor used to direct employees around the building on North Tryon Street.

Hooper’s desk contains a foot-operated sewing machine with a guide that helps her line up two straps that will become a hydration carrier backpack a soldier may wear.

“I’m going to make sure that it’s lined up and then there’s this pedal that’s down below, and I’m going to press it down, and then it sews it on,” Hooper said.

Hooper was born without eyes. She’s had other jobs, including working as an usher at Carowinds, a position that was tailored for her.

“Anytime a challenge would come my way, it’s always excited me because I get to learn something new,” Hooper said.

Hooper has been at Lion Services for about three months, but many of her colleagues, like Alfred Gardner, have been here for years.

Gardner inserted a thread into his sewing machine, relying on touch and feel to find the right spot.

Before working at Lions Services, he was a mechanic at a tire manufacturing company. He was in the early stages of glaucoma when, he said, his failing eyesight made him miss a work order on a car, which led to him losing his job.

“I was depressed," Gardner said. "I got into depression mode, thinking now, ‘Wow! Now I’ve got to find another job.”

Gardner struggled to find a steady job. He was out of work for seven years until he heard about Lions Services. He didn’t know what to expect.

“When I got started — let’s put it that way — I saw what it was and was like, ‘Wow, this is our own world,'” Gardner said. "You got blind folks working, and we’ve got a job.”

Gardner is one of a dozen veterans who works at the company.

Lions Services was founded in 1935 by the Charlotte Central Lions Club to employ World War I veterans. It was called the Charlotte Workshop for the Blind, and re-caning chairs was the business.

In 1975, it became known as Lions Services — a nonprofit textile manufacturer. These days, the nonprofit employs about 255 people in production, most of whom have some form of low vision. The group won’t disclose salaries.

A Molle 4K rucksack and a hydration carrier backpack are two of the items produced at Lions Services for the U.S. military.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
A Molle 4K rucksack and a hydration carrier backpack are two of the items produced at Lions Services for the U.S. military.

Through National Industries for the Blind (NIB), Lions Services competes for government contracts with nonprofits that employ similar workforces. This is part of a long-standing federal initiative meant to help provide employment for people who are blind or have other significant disabilities. In April, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Lions Services a $17 million, three-year contract to make hydration carriers.

“We’re one of 90 agencies throughout the United States that creates jobs for people that are blind,” said Agatha Bisbikis, development director at Lions Services. “So, NIB goes out and gets the contracts with the U.S. military. And then our agencies bid against the contracts.”

According to a Mississippi State University analysis, the unemployment rate for people who are blind or visually impaired is double that of people without disabilities. The study also found higher rates of people with visual impairments not looking for work.

Gardner said that's understandable when people hear "no" repeatedly from employers who misjudge the capabilities of people who are blind.

“They are not going to hire you because they don’t feel like you can be up to the job — and that’s it. They won't hire you,” Gardner said. "It’s hard for visually impaired or blind to find work around here.”

Gloria Wylie sews labels onto rucksacks.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Gloria Wylie sews labels onto rucksacks.

NIB says companies often incorrectly assume it’s expensive to set up a workplace to accommodate a visual impairment.

Gloria Wylie is someone who struggled to find work before joining Lions Services. She's been at the company for 16 years and credits the organization with helping her become financially independent. She can still recall the feeling she had when she received her first paycheck from the group.

“I smiled all the way to the bank. I was happy,” Wylie said. “My own money — this is not a government check, this is my own money. I worked for this. It made me proud.”

Lions Services hopes to hire at least 30 more people in the coming weeks, providing not only a paycheck, but also a path to independence.

Sign up for EQUALibrium

Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.