RAOC’s Branching Out
RAOC appreciates the ability to republish the article below from The News Gazette on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
By Ed Smith
Buena Vista’s industrial base has declined from what it was decades ago. There were the catastrophic floods of 1969 and 1985 that led to factory closings; more recently, globalization and the availability of cheap labor overseas has been the culprit when plants in Buena Vista and elsewhere in the region have shut down.
Traditional manufacturing isn’t the only sector of the local economy that’s been hurt by the latter of these factors. The Rockbridge Area Occupational Center has struggled in recent years to get contracts from the remaining manufacturers because the simple assembly tasks performed by its disabled workforce can be done more cheaply overseas.
“The economic downturn of the region has hurt our business,” acknowledges RAOC Executive Director Willie Funkhouser. “Different factories have closed in Buena Vista. Processes have changed. Our challenge is to find new work that our folks can do. They do hand assembly and bench work, any type of assembly or disassembly. Folding of papers, inserts, anything that can be done by hand.”
RAOC was a bustling place back in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Then, there were 70 people working full-time. Now there are less than half that many, and they’re all part-time.
“We have 30-35 employees right now working four hours a day, 20 hours a week, on days when we have work,” said Funkhouser. “Our goal is to get back to six-hour days, five days a week, and have everybody come in every day.”
When the Great Recession struck in 2008, the local economy and RAOC felt the reverberations. Specifically troubling for RAOC was the closure of the Groendyk Manufacturing plant in Buchanan that provided the occupational center with much of its business. ITT in Roanoke, manufacturer of night vision goggles, had a booming business back in the 1990s, and especially after Sept. 11, 2001, when the defense industry was purchasing the products. ITT would contract out business to RAOC, but ITT’s work these days is only a fraction of what it once was.
RAOC works under a contract with the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services. “Our goal would be to grow the business big enough so that we would have to advertise for openings,” said Funkhouser. “We have an agreement with the state that on average our employees will work a certain number of hours per week. Right now we’re limited to the people who are referred to us by the state. … We’re trying to keep a base number of employees, but to do that we’ve had to cut hours.”
Employees are adults with disabilities – intellectual, physical, emotional – “classified as severe enough to affect their ability to function on their own.” Employees are transported in RAOC buses to and from their homes throughout the area – Timber Ridge, Fairfield, Arnolds Valley, Natural Bridge, Buena Vista and Lexington.
DARS provides funding for one-third of RAOC’s budget. The rest comes from the business RAOC generates, assistance from the three local governments and fundraisers. The downward trend in business has continued the past two or three years, though this year is matching up to last year, said Funkhouser –“Not enough to keep us here everyday.”
After Groendyk shut down, the Rockbridge area governments made an additional contribution that year, allowing RAOC to meet its financial obligations.
There are local companies that provide RAOC with business. HDT, manufacturer of portable shelters that moved into the former Dana facility from Fairfield a couple of years ago, is sending work RAOC’s way. Ropes that have to be tied or folded a certain way and parts and pieces that have to be assembled are put together by RAOC workers.
Shredding documents for businesses and individuals is a service RAOC offers. RAOC is doing some assembly work for Modine Manufacturing for items the company needs only occasionally, when they’re not needed in especially large quantities. “This is an example of one-time opportunities,” said Funkhouser. “All of it helps. Maybe other companies will notice we’re venturing out.”
RAOC has added an outdoor crew in recent years that does mowing, raking, weed-cutting, laying down mulch – basically yard work. They also do a limited amount of woodworking – basic carpentry. RAOC’s Web page, http://www.raoc.org, shows everything they make.
Funkhouser is searching for business beyond the Rockbridge region. “We’re looking at expanding our search zone, looking further afield to find work that’s suitable – hand assembly and bench work.”
A new initiative, a pilot program under the direction of board member Maia Browning, is the making of fine jewelry. “We have the whimsical, the unusual, one of a kind jewelry,” said Browning, who’s searched for and found gems and special pieces for RAOC workers to string together or assemble. She’s secured such items as fresh water pearls, sea glass, beach jewelry, handmade clay beads from Africa, stones from recycled sawdust, products from the 1930s, deco vintage paired with pearls.
RAOC workers have produced signature jewelry collections – Parry McCluer and Rockbridge County high school “spirit collections,” the Natural Bridge collection (available at the Natural Bridge gift shop), Foothill Momma’s Barbecue collection (on display in the restaurant).
RAOC has been a Rockbridge area institution since 1969-1970, when it began as one of the Valley Workshops – there were several throughout the region in those days. In 1986 it became RAOC, an independent entity. Through much of its existence business came from all of the plants in Buena Vista.
Overseeing RAOC employees is a staff of four – Funkhouser; Diane Burger, office manager; Gail Slayton, production supervisor; and Oakey Pruett, outdoor mobile crew supervisor; plus two bus drivers.
A 10-person board of directors sets policies for the non-profit agency. A number of the board members volunteer, working with the employees one-on-one, helping them with life skills, math, reading.
RAOC welcomes volunteers, said Funkhouser, “People can come in and read a book or just visit. Students in Jennifer Balkey’s marketing class [at Parry McCluer High School] come in twice a month and spend time with the workers, playing games, cards or just visiting. They build relationships over time. When they first come in they’re shy but then they get to know them and feel more comfortable.”
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RAOC appreciates the ability to republish this article from The News Gazette on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.