Staff cuts hit blind center
Officials: Somerset County Blind Center's services still available
Rob Stemple (Daily American File Photo / May 19, 2012)
The moves affected local staffing, but has not put the center in danger of closing, company officials said.
"There are always a lot of rumors going around that were closing. That's not going to happen," said Rob Stemple, community outreach and rehabilitation liaison for the center. "Our services are still badly needed in the community and we're going to do the best we can with the resources we have. We're very grateful the support that the Somerset County community gives the organization."
The cuts included eliminating a position held by Marsha Flower, reducing hours for the center's Prevention Program and making Stemple's position part-time.
"Given the financial circumstances of the organization, they made the cuts that had to be made," Stemple said. "The priority was to preserve as much of our services as possible, so our direct service people were not as impacted as much as folks who did some support kinds of things like me. And, absolutely if I had to make the decision myself, I'd have made the same changes."
Dennis Steiner, CEO of the parent company, said that manufacturing downturns for military products were the largest contributor to the company's financial woes. "We're no longer in a build-up for war," he said. "Our hope is that we can bring people back at some point. It's a difficult time for nonprofits."
The association's largest hit came in November, when orders for combat helmet pads, chin straps and nape pads stopped coming in, Steiner said.
During peak production the manufacturing facilities in Lancaster produced 20,000 helmet pads and 14,000 chin straps per month, he said. Those sales pay the lion's share of the association's $1.7 million budgeted to provide services for the visually impaired, he said.
The association serves more than 2,000 individuals who are blind or vision impaired in Lancaster, Lebanon, Somerset, Berks and Chester counties, as well as the Philadelphia region.
Their programs include early childhood education, rehabilitation services, employment training, and industrial/manufacturing services.
Another 8,000 school children are also provided with vision screenings every year through association programs, according to a company release.
Steiner said the company is moving into other markets in hopes they can minimize their reliance on military contracts in the future.
In June they are expected to begin a food packing operation which will employ another 15 people.
The partnership with Shiloh Farms and Nuts About Granola will see the employees — the majority of them blind — packing granola products for distribution.
The company is also looking at changing or finding different markets for existing products like the military combat helmet pads and accessories, Steiner said.
Finding new industrial operations is particularly important to the association because approximately 75 percent of the jobs are held by the visually impaired.
Steiner — who is legally blind himself — understands the important role a paying job can play in a visually impaired person's life.
"They no longer feel that they have to be taken care of. That's the biggest shift," he said. "There's a pride in independence."
"The scope of our services, the quality of our services are not impacted at all by these cuts."
Donations can be made through the Susquehanna Foundation for the Blind, the fundraising arm of the association, by calling 717-393-5894 or visiting www.sfblind.org online.