All over Pinterest, people are turning wooden shipping pallets into furniture.
At VR Business Services, they want to take the transformation a step further, into resources for the blind and visually impaired.
"Each morning, we come in past a pile of pallets," said Cheryl Cuddy, gesturing toward a neatly stacked, towering accumulation stretching toward the Harrisburg warehouse ceiling. The pallets are from the many ventures of the business division of Vision Resources of Central Pennsylvania.
Cuddy has worked at Vision Resources for nearly a decade and is now its special events coordinator. She also is a self-described home improvement junkie, and the pallet craze made her take a second look at that stack and think about its possibilities.
"Shabby chic," Cuddy said. "Recycled. Green. Sturdy."
She kicked the idea around with employee Herman "Bo" Young, and he made prototypes of pieces they thought would be the most successful: magazine rack, shelf, end table, porch swing and storage bench, ranging in price from $20 to $75.
The plan is to make the furniture to order, unfinished. The market Cuddy envisions is young and in the market for non-investment furniture that makes a statement, such as college students, couples just starting out and first-time homebuyers.
"They can paint it purple or leopard if they want it that way," Cuddy said. If the idea takes off, she has a binder full of more pallet possibilities.
Lots of DIY types have been making their own furniture, Cuddy said, but she's not aware of any other nonprofits that have.
Selling to consumers is not something VR Business Services has much experience with; its operations to date have been focused on business-to-business services. But, as Vision Resources Executive Director Danette Blank pointed out, the division does have a history of being resourceful, and "we are pretty big on recycling."
The division has another attribute, too: Providing 83 percent of Vision Resources' revenue last year, it's essential to the mission of the nonprofit organization. Last year it brought in $2.4 million, dwarfing state funding, individual contributions and bequests, and its United Way allotment — and prompting the hiring of a full-time business development manager.
VR sells, installs and recycles carpet; runs photo ID centers; provides all manner of mail services; scans records into digital files for offices going paperless; offers on-demand workforce for fulfillment, packaging and assembly; does commercial cleaning and trash collection; and, most importantly, employs close to 90 individuals with disabilities ranging from visual impairment to mental health.
"We pay minimum wage and up," said Blank. Many of the positions are part-time, and the employees would like to have more work.
"When these people are not working here, they're home on unemployment," Blank said.
Blank also would like to see the division have more work. She thinks many in the business community who might make good use of VR's services don't know they're available and, moreover, don't understand the breadth of what the nonprofit does. Vision Resources does chamber and networking events and has had a salesperson in the past, she said, but she still thinks there's a lot of room to grow.
"I really would like not to be so dependent on the state," Blank said, referring to the fact that most of VR's contracts come from the state, whether it's assembling pens for state police and prisoners or doing mailings.
On that front, the pallet furniture project could prove an unexpected boon. Apart from the funds they will raise, the distinctive pieces could give people an opening to talk about Vision Resources and the work that it does.
Said Cuddy, "I would love it to be a fad."
Elaine Welch, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind, said it is becoming more common for agencies to create employment opportunities for the people they serve. The benefits of the business model are clear, particularly as federal and state support has waned and the aging baby boomers promise to increase demand for the services. And, Welch said, the people need the work.
"Among blind people, the unemployment rate is 70 percent, and that's in a good economy," Welch said. And, she said, as access technology improves and becomes more affordable, the range of possibilities is opening.
"For now, blind people can't drive, but with the new Google car, I believe that's going to change in my lifetime," Welch said. "Other than that, I think there's very, very little that sighted people can do that with good training and access technology that blind people can't do as well."
New name, same mission
Until this year, Vision Resources of Central Pennsylvania was known as the Tri-County Association for the Blind.
The rebranding reflects both the Harrisburg-based nonprofit's expanded coverage area — Franklin County, in addition to Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties — and that its services are not just for the blind.
Danette Blank, executive director of Vision Resources, said that, in the past, some people with vision impairment were reluctant to access needed help because they were not technically blind. In addition, she said, through its business-to-business department, the organization employs dozens of people with disabilities, some of which are not vision related.
The purpose of the organization, however, remains the same: Assisting those who are blind or visually impaired and providing blindness prevention services. It does this through a variety of programs, including life-skills education, radio reading, transportation, Braille production, preschool vision screenings, elementary eye health and safety programs, summer camps, an eye clinic and a vision rehab center.