FORT LEE, Va. (April 21, 2021) – Five years ago, reality slapped Collin Knight awake and pushed him toward something new.
“To be honest, I was looking for a job,” shared the military family member. “College just wasn’t working out for me, so I figured I’d try my hand in the job market.”
Knight happened upon the Fort Lee AbilityOne Base Supply Center in 2016 and vowed to embrace the opportunity to serve as one of its sales associates.
“My goal, and it didn’t matter where, was to come to my job and do the best I could, learn what I could and try to make a difference, big or small,” he said.
The 29-year-old epitomizes the energy, attitude and outlook of his fellow employees at the BSC, an office supply retail establishment situated on Warehouse Road. Virginia Industries for the Blind, a state agency, operates the store that creates job opportunities for visually-impaired Virginians, according to its website.
VIB is supported by the federal AbilityOne Program, which helps to fund manufacturing and retail operations for the disabled. Approximately 45,000 people nationwide are employed under that system.
Knight is one of five store employees and the three who are visually impaired. He said he is strongly connected to the store’s mission and purpose.
“That’s why I’m still here today. I feel like this job in particular and this company have potential to do good things, especially for those of us with disabilities. Things might not come as easily or clearly to us, but the fact there is a company that can help us reach our potential – whether it’s here and somewhere down the road – is a good thing.”
The “good thing” that is the BSC began at Fort Lee in 2002. In addition to general office items, it sells cleaning supplies and hardware to installation customers. Products also can be ordered online or through special order.
Federal entities are required to make purchases from BSCs “if they are available within the period required,” according to law. One would think that expectation would put them at the epicenter of supply transactions on the installation, but that isn’t the case according to Tracy Davis, the facility’s retail manager. Many customers, he noted, make automatic purchases from big box stores or other suppliers for various reasons, which has had a big effect on sales. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.
“The biggest word to sum it all up is ‘frustrating,’” said Davis, who came here from civilian retail seven months ago. “I come from a place where business comes naturally, whereas this is where I have to learn everything all over. I have to figure out who our customers are, how to reach them, and at the same time, support the program.”
As an AbilityOne Program advocate, Davis said he empathizes with employees’ feelings about the lack of sales and the looming threats of a reduction in hours or even positions. Six BSC stores at installations around the state have reduced their operating hours due to losses.
“It’s frustrating for them, too, not having business” he said of his team. “They want to be here. They want to work, and they want to be supportive. People don’t recognize that.”
If the outlook seems gloomy, one would not know it by visiting the store. Situated in an aging cluster of World War II-era facilities running parallel to Route 36, BSC is somewhat of an area bright spot. A brown awning greets visitors to a visibly well-maintained building amidst many with peeling paint.
As customers enter the door, they are likely to receive the type of warm “mom-and-pop-store” greeting that’s no longer common among the nation’s retail industry. Sgt. Jada Simms said she feels the warmth and enthusiasm anytime she visits and knows they serve as preludes for excellent service.
“They’re always welcoming, helpful and ready to assist,” said the unit supply sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 59th Ordnance Brigade. “I always look forward to coming here because they can get me anything I need. If it’s something that’s not in the store, they’re quick to direct me to the proper sources, and shipping is fast. … Everything is outstanding.”
Davis has similarly witnessed his employees’ “outstanding” work and often raves about it.
“What has wowed me about this experience is how these employees are very, very capable,” he said. “They do everything very well – anything I ask them to do. They might need to be showed once or twice, but the tools they have helps them do things very well.”
Those tools include computer software that enlarges or dictates text and other accommodations. Customers who frequent the store quickly become familiar with the methods vision impaired employees use to accomplish their tasks. At the registers, for instance, they may duck their heads closer to keyboards to see the keys or move within inches of computer screens to read text. All of it is part of the tapestry of supporting disabled workers and the local economy.
Members of the BSC team admit there have been moments when individuals exhibited lack of awareness, narrow-mindedness or both.
“It would be dishonest if I said I’ve never felt it here,” said Steve McGuire, a seven-year BSC employee. “Some people will take advantage of you if they can. It’s the way they talk down to (the disabled). … That part of it makes this a learning experience in a way. It really is.”
The 68-year-old worked at a chemical plant for 33 years and began to lose his eyesight late in his career. He is now legally blind.
Elaine Lucas, a five-year employee, said the lion’s share of her experiences at BSC have been overwhelmingly positive. “I love my job,” she confirmed. “I love the customers, and I like learning new things because I’ve never worked in customer service before.”
However, she too can recount moments tainted by ignorance – that customer who made disparaging remarks about her close-up method of reading the computer screen and used the term “blind store,” which BSC team members find offensive.
“It made me feel real bad,” she recalled. “I told my supervisor, and she did something about it, which made me feel better.”
James Drumgole, a sighted employee responsible for customer deliveries, worked at the Defense Supply Center-Richmond BSC prior to his Fort Lee employment. He said he has witnessed the gambit of behaviors toward blind employees and their resilience in the face of adversity – forever being inspired by the latter.
“It gives me a good feeling to see people who love coming to work every day,” he said. “They do this because they care and appreciate the opportunity.
Davis echoed the sentiment, saying that working with visually impaired employees has been a deeply felt experience.
“They are passionate, driven, really enjoy what they do and are wanting to do more,” he said. “It’s been just a humbling experience to be here with them.”
For more information about the Base Supply Center, call 1-804-862-6232. For more information about the Virginia Industries for the Blind, visit www.vibonline.org.