Blinded by a genetic disorder at age 18, 31-year-old Jeremiah Kennedy is as close to gainful employment as he’s been since he was teenager.
One of six blind and visually impaired students in training at the new telecommunications center at Lions Volunteer Blind Industries in Johnson City, Kennedy hopes to join LVBI’s call center staff and relocate to the telecommunications rich Tri-Cities area permanently when his training wraps up early next month.
Noting the national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent compares to 70 percent to 80 percent unemployment among blind people seeking jobs, the young father said his training slot at LVBI, “is kind of like getting a college scholarship.”
“This is the closest I’ve been to a job in 12 years,” he said. “I’ve lived in Alabama and other places and Tennessee, by far, is the best state for services for the blind.”
Kennedy was a student at Cleveland Community College and doing volunteer work in the small town of Vonore, just north of Knoxville, when he came to the LVBI facility in Morristown for mobility training. There he learned of plans for the new call center in Johnson City. He said he jumped at the opportunity and had hoped to be among the first class to receive training in Morristown, but instead won a spot in the LVBI’s first class of trainees at the Johnson City center.
The members of the class hope to begin work at the facility when their training wraps up later this month.
“I’m tired of being trained. I’ve been trained for everything under the sun,” said Monica Jones, Kennedy’s 53-year-old classmate. Her hope is that this latest round of training leads to a job.
Jones, whose optic nerve never fully developed, has held a variety of jobs over the years, including telecommunications. Those jobs all paid by commission. It’s the base pay offered by LVBI and other call centers Jones is after. Having a disability and being limited to disability benefits, she said, “You can exist, but you can’t do the things you want to.”
Part of a 10,000-square foot expansion that more than doubled the size of the LVBI’s Johnson City manufacturing plant, the call center is set up for 40 employees but has a capacity for up to 60 workers. Unlike the manufacturing operation that contracts most of its work from the U.S. military, the call center’s work will come from private company contracts. Those contracts began with Grand Crown Resort, for whom LVBI’s first employees have been soliciting and scheduling customer review day trips to Pigeon Forge since mid-September.
Don Hogsed, who trained for the job at the LVBI home facility in Morristown, has been at work at the call center for nearly four weeks and most appreciates for two key benefits — LVBI’s good work environment and exceptionally good health insurance.
Legally blind since 2000, Hogsed lost his sight completely three years ago and has spent the past several years unemployed and on disability despite his master’s degree and many years of employment in medical social work, sales and the ministry.
A productive sort, Hogsed said, “After all that, I decided to go back to work,” primarily for the health insurance. He describes the call center, with its advanced technology, piped in music and amicable staff, “a nice environment,” and applauds its health insurance plan as half the cost and double the benefits as the policy his wife has through her teaching job at East Tennessee State University.
In the work station adjacent to Hogsed, 24-year-old Jennifer Finley is adjusting to life as an independent, working woman, on her own and far from her family and the small community of Hillsville, Va.
Like several of her blind and visually impaired co-workers and those in training who have transplanted to the area, Finley is still learning her way around Johnson City, lamenting its spread and its limited sidewalk system, particularly on the northern end of town.
Over the next five years, Call Center Manager Jamie Aistrop said LVBI plans to expand the call center staff slowly to fill its 40 seats and, depending on the contracts available, possibly hitting its 60-worker capacity, while at the same time training and referring blind and visually impaired workers to other call centers here and elsewhere.
Dick Tuttle, director of information technology and related employment for LVBI, noted the call center’s opening has coincided with LVBI’s 60th anniversary of its manufacturing operations which began in Johnson City in October 1951. “Times change. Different technology and opportunities for the blind come along. And here we are in our brand new state of the art call center,” he said.
More information about LVBI and employment opportunities for the blind and visually impaired may be obtained by contacting LVBI in Johnson CIty at 929-7008 or at the company’s home offices in Morristown at 586-3922.