Founded in 1934, the Austin Lighthouse, has a long history in the city. But if you ask President and CEO Jim Meehan, the first thing he usually hears after giving visitors a tour of their facilities is: “We had no idea you were here!”
“We have 450 employees, 250 of whom are blind or visually impaired. That makes us a pretty big employer in the city, yet most people in the community don’t know we’re here,” he says. But the NIB associated nonprofit agency’s secret may be out after an impressive response to the COVID-19 crisis that included stepping up production of GOJO Purell hand sanitizers and soaps, and making and donating nearly 5,000 cloth face masks to area nonprofits.
GOJO Purell hand sanitizers and soaps ‒ which the agency makes for state and federal government customers ‒ were in high demand, especially at the start of the pandemic. Meehan says the Lighthouse ramped up production of Purell products by 400 percent, increasing from 35,000 cases per month to 150,000 cases per month. To accommodate the surge in demand, production in other areas of the Lighthouse was slowed, and employees were moved to the Purell lines. Nearly 100 employees worked on the lines at the start of the pandemic, working 12 hours a day six days a week. Employees in the shipping department, Meehan says, worked 12 hours a day seven days a week.
Lighthouse Marketing Coordinator Brandye Lacy says that while the efforts to increase production in the Purell lines was remarkable, she is most proud of the roughly 5,000 cloth face masks the agency made and distributed throughout the Austin community in response to COVID-19.
“When the pandemic hit, we wanted to do something so our employees, their families, and the greater community felt safer,” says Lacy. “We decided to make face masks and give them away.” In addition to employees, the agency provided an estimated 5,000 face masks to area nonprofits, including those serving children, the homeless, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.
“We bought bolts and bolts of fabric from retailers in the area,” says Meehan, who notes that they were especially proud of the masks they made for the Texas School for the Deaf. “We made those with clear plastic windows in them so they could read lips,” he says.
“Most people don’t know we’re here, and when they do find out, they assume we must not be very sophisticated because there’s a lot of people who are blind working here,” says Meehan. “The assumption is that people who are blind can’t. Those are the kind of barriers we’re working to knock down, to let the community at large know that we’re here, we have capabilities and a diverse workforce, and that people who are blind CAN.”