Every so often, a story or statistic about Arkansas arises that makes even life-long residents of The Natural State cock their heads and wonder how they never knew it. Today, it’s this: Arkansas has the second largest population per capita of individuals with visual impairments, many of whom live in the Little Rock metro.
Little Rock is also home to multiple nonprofits and organizations — like World Services for the Blind and the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired — that are dedicated to helping this community live full, happy, inclusive lives in any way they can.
No, it’s not a coincidence. This community was built thoughtfully, intentionally, by individuals and groups who worked to help meet a need, which in turn brought more people who shared that need to a place where arms and doors were thrown open wide.
Industries for the Blind (IFB) Solutions is one of those places with wide open doors. Set in a 66,000-square-foot warehouse, the nonprofit provides training, employment and services for people who are blind or visually impaired, who in turn manufacture 30 different products for the military, federal customers and private businesses.
Until 2014, IFB Solutions was known as Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit born out of a small workshop opened in 1940 by Rev. Jeff Smith, who was also blind. In 1945, the group expanded to a space that was personally dedicated by Helen Keller herself, before expanding again to its current location in 1966.
Five years ago, the nonprofit joined forces with IFB Solutions, an organization headquartered in North Carolina with two other nearby locations in Asheville and Winston-Salem, a move that helped provide needed resources to the Arkansas group.
“Actually, a lot of people locally still call it Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind,” says IFB Solutions advisory council chair Madeline Moore, “and while it’s not entirely accurate, we love that people know it’s been here in their community and feel connected to it.”
Moore, a senior human resources manager for Arvest Bank in central Arkansas, joined the council about three years ago after learning about the nonprofit from a coworker.
“I did my research and learned who they were and what they did. That was all it took to spark my passion for it,” Moore says. “But when I toured the facility, I knew I was hooked.”
Inside the warehouse, employees manufacture a list of assorted items including military apparel and accessories like belts, bags and T-shirts, as well as environmentally friendly spiral-bound notebooks, memo pads and custom promotions for government contracts. The North Carolina centers produce their own specific lineup of products including mattresses and extreme-weather outerwear, and even teach skills like ultrasonic welding and full-scale digital cutting.
Nationally, the unemployment rate for working-aged people who are blind or visually impaired sits at a whopping 70%. Of those who do work, IFB Solutions is the nation’s largest employer. The Little Rock facility currently employs 71 people who are blind or visually impaired. And for those employees, IFB Solutions is a family, one employees often commit to for decades.
But it doesn’t stop at the warehouse. IFB Solutions also offers services like workforce training programs and its Community Low Vision Center where visitors can learn how to use adaptive low-vision technology at work and home. This includes everything from using raised, adhesive bump dots to help identify buttons on a stove to devices that allow them to use cell phones and computers, technology that makes many careers much more accessible.
“Some people come in who have been blind all their lives, and some come in who can no longer read or drive or have lost their independence, and they’re just moved to tears by what they’re able to do at the center,” Moore says. “We had a 90-year-old man who wept because he never thought he’d be able to read his own Bible again.”
And that’s exactly what IFB Solutions is working toward: empowering individuals, lending a level of independence and aptitude that lift the spirit in ways few other methods can.
“Often these are people who developed impairments over time who never imagined they wouldn’t be in a role for their family where they’d be the breadwinner or caregiver or any number of things,” Moore says. “It’s incredible for them to contribute in such a way and to see them thrive.”
IFB Solutions’ other mission? Awareness. Because of the multiple organizations in town serving people who are blind and visually impaired, sometimes people assume they’re all connected or that they all do the same thing. Although separate entities, according to Moore, they’re all pieces of the same mission puzzle, and IFB Solutions’ main role is employment.
One of the nonprofit’s biggest outreaches is its annual Bingo for Bags event, a fundraiser where attendees play rounds of bingo to win luxury handbags while enjoying fine dining and drinks. While only in its third year, the event has outgrown its venue every year, which is exactly the kind of problem Moore wants as the Bingo for Bags committee chair.
Weeks before the big event, Moore sits at a corner table at Mylo Coffee Co. in Hillcrest, breaking off bits of a big chocolate chip cookie and jotting her to-do list in a spiral-bound notebook, a notebook that, incidentally, was manufactured at IFB Solutions.
“You know,” she says, “they go through more just to get to work in the morning than you or I do in a whole day. It’s amazing — and a dose of perspective, for sure. So many people don’t find what they do fulfilling. These folks have every reason in the world to sit it out, and yet they’re so passionate and committed to their jobs, to these families they’ve found. How can you not be inspired by them?”