PORT RICHEY — After his second fender bender in six months, Rocky Richard knew something was wrong.
Driving had gotten harder for him in the past few months, his vision waning. He went in for an eye checkup where he learned he had degenerative retinas and cone dystrophy. The doctor gave it to him straight: "You're blind."
Two words had stripped Richard of his independence. No more driving. No more reading. It forced him to retire from his lawn care business at 49 years old. Any car trips he took were out of the kindness of neighbors.
He took odd jobs: raking, picking up garbage, bagging leaves. He came to the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind, a nonprofit that offers training and support for people who are blind. A few weeks ago, something came through.
"We've got a job for you," said Sylvia Perez, the center's executive director.
"This can't be," he said. "I thought those years were gone."
But there he was Thursday morning, at a table in the Lighthouse Opportunity Center with two other soon-to-be-employees, training for their new jobs.
They are the first to start packaging and assembly work under a soon-to-be-signed contract with Soule Packaging Company in Tampa, said Frank Gomberg, a development engineer for National Industries for the Blind.
A grand opening for the center, at 5944 Pine Hill Road, is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today. The West Pasco Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to hold a ribbon cutting at noon.
On Thursday, the workers were training to make packaging for parachutes that go inside a pilot's flight suit. The packages, roughly the size of a sandwich bag, will retail at $2.65. Soule needs 280,000 over the next three years. That's why the company is contracting with Lighthouse.
Soule had given them the materials: plastic bags, tape and string. Their job was to assemble them. Gomberg was there to teach them how.
Their first task was to snip off the bags' corners with a pair of scissors at about a 45-degree angle so they could thread the string through later. They would use a poster board template to get the right angle on the corners.
Gomberg began to explain the process when Greg Thompson, another trainee who is blind, held his hand out.
"Can I see it?" he asked. Gomberg handed him the template. He ran his fingers along the edge around the clipped corners. "Oh yeah," he said. "I see what you're saying."
To measure the strings for the packages, they used screws 8 inches apart in a board. Thompson wrapped the string several times between the two screws then cut once down the coil with a pair of scissors. The result was several strands of 16-inch string that could be threaded through the packages.
But if you run a manufacturing company, why go to all the trouble? Couldn't machines do the work?
No, said Pete Schingen, quality manager at Soule. It's actually cheaper for the company to outsource to centers like Lighthouse than to buy the machinery.
"The products we're having manufactured at the Lighthouse require the human touch," he said.
And that business model seems to work all over the country.
Want to know where material for prison uniforms comes from? It's cut by blind workers in Baltimore. And military uniforms? From blind workers in Durham, N.C. Several parts of Boeing aircraft are machined and assembled by Lighthouse members in Seattle.
"It's a great job pool of people that are often overlooked because of fear," Perez said.
About 70 percent of people who are blind are unemployed, according to National Industries for the Blind.
The biggest hurdle in seeking employment for people who are blind is transportation, said Perez, who is also blind.
There should have been four chairs around the table at the center on Thursday. But for one woman, who planned to start a job at the center, the trip proved too hard.
She practiced her route the day before, Perez said. From Zephyrhills to Port Richey, 45 miles on public transportation. It took 5½ hours.
The woman called Perez. She couldn't take the job.
Richard was lucky enough to hitch a ride with a friend from his home in Spring Hill.
His vision is somewhere between not being able to read words as small as the ones on this page but well enough to distinguish a person's face. Putting together parachute packaging works just fine for him.
He sat at the table at the center, smiling while he talked about his new job.
"It's something I can do," he said. "I'm finally worth something."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.