How IFB Solutions Winston-Salem Puts Blind and Visually Impaired People to Work

Before coming to the United States from the Ukraine in 2012, Tatiana Russell had never met a blind person. But after joining IFB Solutions Winston-Salem to work in their optics department that same year, she discovered a world of possibilities she never knew existed.

“I came for a tour, and it changed my life,” recalled Russell, who now serves as the nonprofit’s grants and development coordinator. “In Ukraine, blind people sit at home just because they don’t have tools or help. I lived in Ukraine until I was 21 and never had seen a blind person.”

Firoz is sewing on the manufacturing floor in the Winston-Salem Facility
Firoz is sewing on the manufacturing floor in the Winston-Salem Facility

IFB Solutions was founded in 1936 under the name Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind. It has grown from a two-room shop employing six blind workers to one of the nation’s largest locations. The 120,000-square-foot building features nationally-recognized high-tech optical services, facilities for sewing, assembling and packaging products, as well as a retail store for low-vision products.

IFB Solutions has locations around the U.S. and Puerto Rico. As a whole, the nonprofit employs nearly 1,000 people. Workers manage field operations for more than 30 optical dispensaries in VA hospitals and 18 supply centers on military bases and federal office buildings.

But job services are only a part of the support IFB Solutions provides for the blind and visually impaired. A Student Enrichment Experience (SEE) program offers after-school activities and summer camps allowing students to gain work experience at the IFB facility.

In 2012, the organization committed to build an area where kids could learn different skills. Known as Tracy’s Little Red Schoolhouse and TAD’s Room, blind and visually impaired children and adults can learn independent living and job skills.

Photo of SEE kids
Photo of SEE kids

This is their education center. We have a library, an IT room. We even have a doll-changing table. We have a sensory garden in the back. This is a wonderful place where kids can feel safe and they gain so many skills.

Individuals interested in joining IFB Solutions and its programs are asked to fill out an accessible online form, and will then be contacted by the center for an assessment. If a worker wishes to relocate, IFB Solutions does their best to help with expenses. Rather than try to pigeonhole an individual into a job that doesn’t match their skill set, IFB partners with a local university to offer business classes, which also focus on money management. They offer opportunities for customer service jobs if a worker doesn’t wish to work in manufacturing.

It depends on your skills and background, (but) if you want to work, we’ll find you a job.

For those who are experiencing vision loss, IFB facilitates support groups and subsidizes some expenses related to those groups such as transportation, food and medical assistance.

We know that transportation can get costly. We (also) subsidize a cafeteria. We know it’s very important to have at least one hot meal a day. We’ve learned that it’s challenging to take a day off to get to the doctor, so we have a medical service in our facility where a doctor comes. We have a full-time nurse you can go to for any concerns.

As grants and development coordinator, Russell oversees all funding for IFB Solutions Winston-Salem. Golf tournaments and other events are held periodically throughout the year. Sponsorships and individual donations are also welcome.

Through the recommendation of a teacher who works with the center, Russell contacted the Foreseeable Future Foundation to apply for a grant. The application was accepted this past August, and funds were received in October. The money is being used toward virtual and in-person after-school programs.

“We were thrilled,” Russell said on receiving the grant. “This is a new foundation for us. We would love to learn more. I did see the videos and we were happy to continue supporting children who are blind and see the progress and impact our work does.”

Since many activities were virtual during the COVID-19 shutdown, Russell saw that as an opportunity to increase the organization’s reach. While many programs have gone back to the face-to-face experience, virtual options are still being offered, particularly in the after-school program. It’s another indication of the organization’s commitment to the well-being of blind and visually impaired persons of all ages.

I’ve heard so many stories when a person was lost and lived for 20 years thinking that there’s nothing they can do in life, and then they heard about us. Now, they’re getting married, having kids and all that. We’re always looking, (and) some job positions are always available.

Anyone interested in finding out more about IFB Solutions Winston-Salem can visit their website.