By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffMarch 5, 2009
Janice Caudle can look over the manufacturing floor at Phoenix Manufacturing and know she has made a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
As disabled employees work side-by-side with non-disabled employees to make burial flags, parachute harnesses, equipment bags for TOW missiles and seat cushions for Humvees, Caudle is busy reviewing costs and pricing, ordering materials, interfacing with customers, negotiating new business contracts and managing other behind-the-scenes aspects of running a non-profit business that has employed 82 people with disabilities for almost three years.
Recently, Caudle\'s work as a contracts specialist involving the administration of more than $5 million in product contracts was recognized with the "Unsung Hero Award" presented annually by the South Region of the National Council of Work Centers. The award is presented to a person in a support role whose work has resulted in new or expanded jobs for people with disabilities through the AbilityOne program, a federal initiative to help disabled people find employment with nonprofit agencies that sell products and services to the U.S. government.
"It was really exciting," said Caudle, who attended the NCWC's annual conference in Jacksonville, Fla., with her husband, John Caudle, who works for the Test Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment Activity on Redstone Arsenal, and her boss, Wess Tyler, Phoenix's vice president of manufacturing and general manager.
"I've never gotten that kind of award before. It is very competitive and quite an honor. It was very humbling. I really don't feel I've done enough for this award."
Caudle began working at Phoenix Manufacturing, a division of the Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation, about three years ago, after working in the government division of a local defense contractor for more than 20 years.
"This work is so rewarding because we are employing people with disabilities," Caudle said. "Making sure disabled people have productive work is a high priority in everything we do. My primary job is to make sure we keep jobs coming in. I price the job and interface with the customer to make sure they are happy and they will keep coming back to us."
Phoenix Manufacturing - as well as its sister non-profit, Phoenix Service -- exists to provide jobs, wages and training to disabled people who have been served through programs offered by the Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation. The non-profit has more than 20 years experience in heavy duty military and commercial application sewing to customer's drawings and specifications. It also offers custom embroidery services for shirts, jackets, caps and other personal items.
"Our largest contract is for interment flags," Caudle said. "We are in mod seven of our work with this contract, and each mod represents three years. We make over 7,000 interment flags a month that are shipped to the Veterans Administration. We also provide these flags to funeral homes and private customers."
Phoenix Manufacturing is getting ready to begin work on a new $1.5 million contract to make 15,000 parachute harnesses. If all goes well, the company could also obtain another $1.1 million contract for 10,000 additional parachute harnesses.
"This contract represents more security for the people we have working here," Caudle said.
For Caudle, helping disabled people is a personal mission made easier by her job at Phoenix Manufacturing.
"My nephew is autistic. He is 17 and works at a health club in Seattle where he folds towels," she said.
"I know there is a real need for people with disabilities to be able to work. It's such a blessing to them to have a job instead of sitting at home all day. They take a lot of pride in their work. And they are the most tender-hearted and loving people you could ever employ. They are open, honest and loving people who always have a greeting for you."
Those greetings are part of Caudle's daily work routine as she walks through the manufacturing area every morning.
"I fall in love with these employees as soon as I get to know them," she said. "This is very personally rewarding for me."
Phoenix Manufacturing provides jobs for people with all types of vocational disabilities that can impact their ability to get and keep a job. Before they begin work, their disability is evaluated along with their past work experience, education, personal resources and other factors. Each employee has a program specifically designed for them by the Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation to maximize their vocational potential and goals.
"I've never worked with such caring management and staff as I do here," Caudle said. "Everyone is really hands-on and they really care for our clients, our employees and everyone we serve. It's a blessing to work here."
Although many of its employees are disabled, Phoenix Manufacturing has proven that disabilities don't get in the way of getting the job done.
"They know what is expected of them, and they are eager to meet those expectations," Caudle said. "They get a paycheck just like we all get a paycheck, and they understand they have to work for that paycheck.
"They may need a little help and guidance every once in awhile. But we all do."