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Lighthouse offers jobs for blind, partially blind

Atmi Hermios admitted he had to overcome some prejudices when he took his new job. Of the six men and two women who were on the production line at Inland Northwest Lighthouse last Monday, Hermios was the only one who could see.

Standing by a metal saw inside the former Tidyman’s supermarket on North Addison, the part-time pastor from the Marshall Islands recalled asking about a job when he noticed construction activity. Based on his experience in manufacturing, he was hired.

But learning that most of his co-workers would have little, if any, sight, and that some might also have difficulty hearing, took him aback, Hermios said.

To help him get over it, Lighthouse sent him to its main facility in Seattle, where more than 300 workers, most sight-impaired, make parts for Boeing Co., Nike and other clients. Sales exceed $37 million.

“It seemed like everybody knew where they were going,” Hermios said. “I was amazed.”

In Spokane, he works alongside 10 blind and two sighted co-workers. Seven more will be on board by Aug. 4, said Damiana Harper, the plant’s administrative and public relations coordinator.

So far, the crew has focused on making metal binders for medical charts, and paper cutters. The first shipment went out the door last week, Harper said.

As more machines are brought to Spokane from Seattle and Mexico and set up, she said Lighthouse will expand its Spokane work force to more than 50.

President Kirk Adams, as he announced the opening of the Spokane site in January, said the move gives the company more space, and gives blind workers in Eastern Washington access to more jobs.

Lighthouse is partnering with ACCO Brands Corp. to market the office products, of which the U.S. General Services Administration is a major buyer. Some of the equipment staged but not yet installed in Spokane belongs to ACCO.

Last week, Mark Shively manned a multi-head drill press set up by the old Tidyman’s seafood counter. He was drilling holes in paper cutter handles, then attaching the cutter blade with rivets.

Retinitis pigmentosa began to rob Shively of his sight almost from infancy. He can see only shapes, and his hearing has deteriorated because of arch syndrome.

Shively trained as an electrician and worked for R.A. Pearson and another company in the 1990s. When his eyesight no longer made that possible, he returned to his family’s home in Waitsburg. He was, he said, a Mr. Mom, but he also served on the City Council for 3 ½ years. He lost his seat, Shively said, while he was studying at the Washington School for the Blind.

“I guess they figured I had too much going on,” said a bemused Shively.

A friend working for Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle told him a Spokane plant was planned. He interviewed in February.

“You just come to work and do your thing,” Shively said.

He lives nearby with a 16-year-old daughter. His wife remains in Waitsburg with another daughter.

“She wants to see how it works out,” Shively said. “I think it’s going to work out pretty good.”

Shively hands a bin of handles off to Lantz with a cheerful “Take it away, buddy.”

Kurt Lantz finishes the handles using hand tools and a press that squeezes a hinge into place. Totally blind, Lantz nevertheless has prior experience with hand and power tools.

Lantz said the Lighthouse job, which he learned of through the Washington Department of Services for the Blind, will finally allow his wife to stay home with their children, ages 2 and 4. For the past 10 years, he said, the family has patched together a living on her wages from McDonald’s and his gigs as a drummer and roustabout for gospel tent crusades.

“It just feels good to do a good day’s work,” Lantz said. “We can do it. We just need the opportunity.”

His kids, he added, thought the plant was very cool when they were allowed to visit last weekend.

“It makes me feel so good I almost don’t know how to express it,” Lantz said.

Jeremy Stanton is a Stevens County native and former Eastern Washington University student who earned some notoriety in 2001 when he fell 18 feet through an open campus manhole. His injuries were minor, and Stanton brings up the incident with a droll “That was me.”

He received a degree in developmental psychology from EWU in 2004. He started with Lighthouse in Seattle, where he counted parts and taught computer skills using a device that reads screen content to him.

“This is really my first job after college,” Stanton said.

He was working at a metal press, stamping and cutting pieces for medical record binders. Like the other machines, the press has laser screens that do not allow it to work if a hand is in the way. It also takes two hands on separate switches to make the machine function.

Stanton advances raw sheets of metal to the fence by hand, steps back, triggers the press, then removes the part and stacks it in a bin with a paper sheet to prevent scratching. Like other employees, he has been cross-trained on other machinery.

Monica Stugelmeyer gravitated back to Spokane last year from Denver, where she had worked in a call center.

Stugelmeyer had worked in The Spokesman-Review packaging center before heading south, and that environment suited her, she said, adding “I’ve always liked production work. Just show me how to do it. Let me do it, and tell me I’m doing all right.”

Like some of the other workers, Stugelmeyer lives within walking distance of the plant.

Harper said Lighthouse is working with the city of Spokane to get chirping signals installed at nearby crosswalks, and with Spokane Transit Authority on paratransit rides for workers – Lantz for one – who live some distance away.

Several workers had known each other in past, she said, so they have quickly established a camaraderie. They receive a wage above minimum, and after 90 days qualify for a benefits package that includes medical/dental, life insurance and retirement benefits.

Russ Hanna, the supervisor on the site for Waynco Construction, said he marvels at the spirit he sees.

Nobody complains, and the Lighthouse crew has made his job fun.

“They’re something else,” Hanna said.