The Blind Find Hope, Jobs Through Ohio Center
In 2003, Bertram was living the good life. He was a manager for an auto parts company with a healthy income. He oversaw 16 stores and 120 employees. But he had diabetes and didn't know it. The disease stole his vision.
The 48-year-old went blind in his left eye. After multiple surgeries, he has some vision in his right eye, but not much. "I can see the big E, sometimes, on the vision chart," Bertram said.
He had to give up his job because he could no longer drive. "That was pretty devastating," he said. "Top of the world one minute, slammed to the ground the next."
By 2004, Bertram reached his lowest point. He took the garbage out to the front of his house and got turned around. So close to home, he was totally lost. He walked around in circles, disoriented and embarrassed, before he finally found the tree in front of his house. "I realized then," he said, "that I needed help."
Bertram went to Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in North College Hill. Clovernook was formed in 1903 with money from William A. Procter. Its mission was to provide a home and employment to blind women. It now helps men and women.
And help is needed. The American Foundation for the Blind says that 75 percent of the blind and seriously visually impaired are "not in the labor force." Some are unemployed, many have just stopped looking for work.
Bertram walked through the door at Clovernook humbled but hopeful. "I didn't know what to think," he said. "I didn't know what would happen, but I had hope."
Bertram was given a white cane and mobility training, allowing him to walk more efficiently and safely. Next, he needed job training. The organization had a government contract to provide legal file folders, the kind with prongs on the top to hold large files. His first job was creasing the folders and using a fastener machine to put the prongs on the top. It was a far cry from overseeing multiple stores and 120 employees. But for Bertram it was a great day.
"Being able to get back to work was really gratifying. Being able to work, to provide for my family, made me very, very happy," Bertram said. "I see people give up on themselves. Just because a person is blind doesn't mean they can't do anything."
Within 18 months, Bertram earned a supervisor's role. He is now the manager of industrial manufacturing for Clovernook, which, in addition to file folders, also makes drinking cups for the Navy. And this year, a commercial company, Susty Party, approached Clovernook and asked them to make their cups.
Susty Party clearly liked the idea of helping Clovernook and its mission, but that doesn't mean the cups can be lower quality. Now, when shoppers across the country buy a Susty Cup at Whole Foods, they are buying a cup that was made by the blind and visually impaired in North College Hill. This is no longer government work, this is private enterprise and high expectations.
Bertram knows his workers, and his cups, are up to the task. "The best workers I have ever had have been blind people," he said. "They show up every day, and they want to prove to you that they can work."
Bertram manages 12 people. Three have vision, nine are blind or visually impaired. If you walked through the plant without paying close attention, you would not know any of these workers were different from any other. Their movements are muscle memory now, fast and constant and efficient.
Two things are happening as the cups are made. First, Clovernook is making money, so it can pay for programs and employees and training. But the work has another, more important role: training blind and visually impaired workers for their next job.
"I'm helping those who are blind," Bertram said. "And I am helping Clovernook at the same time."
He treats his workers with respect, he defines what is expected and he trusts they will get the job done. Same as he would with any employee.
"I feel like it's why I am here," Bertram said. "Clovernook gave me back my life, in a way. Part of paying that back is to help other people here become independent. And employment is really important."