Stories Like His

Dear Readers,

Did you know that Mississippi has the highest incidence of blindness per capita in the nation?  And that over 70% of people with severe visual impairments are not employed?  Thus, given these two statistics, Mississippi has the highest number of unemployed, blind individuals per capita in the country.

But the story below is one of hope and gratitude:

Greg Sylvest of Meridian, MS, first came to Mississippi Industries for the Blind at age 35, having been diagnosed with Glaucoma, “the second most common cause of blindness in the United States.”  Because of this disease, Greg began to lose his peripheral sight, causing what is commonly known as tunnel vision.  Upon finding out about this irreparable loss of sight, Greg was “shocked.”

“I couldn’t tell that’s what I had, but by the time I had it checked out, it was inoperable,” he told me during our interview.

Although Greg began to lose his vision, he did not lose his ability to work.  When asked what it was like to come to Mississippi Industries for the Blind as a new employee, he replied, “It was very good, very comforting to know I still had a place to work.  I knew I could come here and be encouraged by others who were also visually impaired.  We all work very well together.”

So, for the past fourteen years, Greg has worked as a welder for MIB Meridian, creating products from tow bars to ferrules to fish cookers to fence post pullers.  He was also awarded Employee of the Year in 2011, to which he says, “It was nice to know that I was meeting standards.” (Or rather, exceeding them).

Because of the employment opportunities created for him by Mississippi Industries for the Blind, and his own willingness to overcome his perceptual limitations, Greg can work and provide for himself.

I enjoy doing interviews like this and the one with Ms. Sandra Williams (see previous post) because it gives you, the reader, a context for the work we do as a foundation.  Greg’s and Sandra’s stories are only two out of hundreds like them.  There are still plenty of Mississippians with visual impairments that would love nothing more than a task at hand and financial self-reliance.  The foundation thus takes in donations to help purchase equipment and develop programs to then hire visually impaired individuals from around the state.

While we cannot change blindness, we can change what happens in the lives of those with visual impairments.  And it all starts with your help.

Meridian Satellite Facility

Last week, Roy Granger (the Deputy Director of Operations at MIB), Connie Souto-Leerman (the MIB HR Director), and I, Kelsey Marx (AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer with the foundation) took the opportunity to visit the Mississippi Industries for the Blind satellite manufacturing plant in Meridian, MS.  We left the MIB Jackson location early Wednesday morning to drive to Meridian for the day.  Having never visited before, I was able to learn a lot about MIB Meridian while taking a tour of the facility with Lewis, the plant manager.

Greg Sylvest, MIB Meridian’s legally blind welder & 2011 MIB Employee of The Year, works on crowbars for the United States Postal Service

As I did, you may also find it interesting that MIB Meridian is one of the only facilities in the United States who employees visually impaired individuals to work on metal products (i.e. welding).  The array of products and organizations to whom they sell them are vast, and the quality of production is impressive.  Upon walking around and seeing the visually impaired employees weld crowbars and produce replacement keys for the U.S. Postal Service, I was astounded; not only were they making products within a very precise process for large and renowned government entities such as the USPS, but they were doing so without being able to see.  And they have been making said products at a rate of about 4 million per year for the past 20 years.  A difficult job even for someone with sight.

Finished crowbars, painted yellow, ready to be shipped to the USPS.
The USPS replacement keys have been made at MIB Meridian since the early 1980s.
Here, a visually impaired employee arranges the newly made keys for the next step in the line of production.

 Continuing down the line, I also learned that MIB Meridian makes Aluminum card label holders to be used on U.S. Navy vessels. And sponges for large companies in Califormia.  And some of the best jumper cables money can buy–made from pure copper wires & clamps and followed up with 100% continuity tests.  MIB Meridian has also been credited by the U.S. government for their changes to the efficiency in production of this type of jumper cables.

Bobby, another visually impaired employee at MIB Meridian, stacks the Aluminum card label holders before sending them to the end of the production line.

At the end of our visit, I couldn’t help but feel renewed in purpose and drive.  I’ve seen MIB Jackson and all of the great things that it does, but seeing it again and in a new place was further validation of the work that we strive to do.  Mississippi Industries for the Blind provides jobs to Mississippians with visual impairments.  And the MIB Foundation for the Blind & Visually Impaired proudly supports that challenge.  And that’s a big deal.