CLEVELAND — From Cleveland to Columbus and Toledo to Cincinnati, Ohio is packed with companies who call the Buckeye State home.
As part of the News 5 Cleveland Buckeye Built series, reporter Meg Shaw went behind the scenes of an agency exclusively responsible for sewing the dress slacks for women in the the U.S. Army and Navy: Vocational Guidance Services.
Vocational Guidance Services, or VGS, was first founded in Cleveland in 1890 when a group of girls, who became known as the Sunbeam Circle, began selling their hand-sewn products to benefit the children at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland.
Sewing has always remained a focal point for the Sunbeam Circle, which not only operated a sewing school for girls, but also organized events where the sewn goods were sold for fundraising purposes.
Throughout the years the agency went through a series of name changes.
In 1918 the nonprofit agency changed its name to the Association for the Crippled and Disabled. Leaders did this to reflect the array of services targeting all aspects of individuals of all ages with disabilities, including job training. Then in 1956 the Vocational Guidance Bureau merged with the Cleveland Rehabilitation Center to form Vocational Guidance and Rehabilitation Services, or VGRS. That's when work began to rehabilitate the agency’s present headquarters building on East 55th Street in Cleveland.
Finally in 1986 the name was shorted to Vocational Guidance Service, or VGS.
In 1991 VGS received a major contract, a federal government sewing contract for U.S. Army women’s dress slacks. This launched a legacy of being the exclusive provider of female dress slacks for both officers and enlisted personnel in the U.S. Army.
Today the company serves more than 3,500 individuals each year and provides thousands hours of work experience, training and employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities or other barriers to employment.
VGS provides several vocational rehabilitation programs designed to help adults obtain and maintain employment. This is full list of programs outlined on their website:
Work Evaluation Services help participants explore options, identify immediate and long-term vocational goals, and determine the steps necessary to achieve those goals.
Work Adjustment is an employment preparation program in which participants learn critical job- keeping skills and behaviors, such as attendance, punctuality, work quality, productivity, and interpersonal interaction while working and earning a paycheck at agency or employer partner work sites.
Skills Training provides participants with the industry-based skills needed for a variety of jobs. These services offer a combination of classroom training and on-the-job practicum. Many offer third-party industry-based certifications.
Specialized Program Services help to enhance vocational readiness through specialized services tailored to each individual’s specific needs.
Job Placement Services are designed to help individuals with barriers to employment learn effective techniques for seeking, securing, and maintaining employment.
Social Enterprise Services provide paid work experience, training, and employment opportunities through partnerships VGS has developed with public and private sector companies.
The CEO of VGS, Susie Barragate, said the nonprofit agency works with a large range of individuals with disabilities.
"The range that we work with here can be pretty significant. Adults with developmental disabilities who are not yet ready for employment but are thinking about it in the future. All the way up to individuals who maybe have come home from overseas and are in the Army or in the armed services, and are looking to be retrained and replaced. Or somebody who was injured on a job and needs to be retrained and placed," Barrgate said.
Barragate said even in this day and age in the United States, the idea of a company hiring workers with disabilities is taboo and unwelcome.
"They don't understand why bringing somebody in with a disability is no different than bringing you or I into a job. Often there's the fear of expensive accommodations or expensive things they're going to have to do. That's not the truth. That's not the case," she said.
Barragate said her hope is that at the end of the day adults who work for and with VGS go home feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. For many with disabilities, working elsewhere isn't an option and that's why VGS is proud to help change the narrative.
"We can show them a path to where the answer is yes. Yes, you can do this. Yes, we think you can achieve this," the CEO said.
Defying the Odds
All of the employees at VGS have a story to tell. Barbara Moore is one of them.
Moore has worked with the sewing production at VGS for the last 17 years. Moore said it's a job that changed her entire life.
"Every place I looked, it was like, no. We can't do that, no. So when I came here, it was like yes," Moore recalled the day she was hired.
Moore's life has been threaded with struggle and strife when it comes to finding a job.
"I was born legally with sight," Moore said.
For most of her adult life, Moore said she's had trouble finding employment because of her eyesight. A lot of companies, she said, turned her away because of her disability.
But not VGS.
"I started telling my story three months after I started working here," she said. "Walk through the company and you see the different levels of disabilities is this company is to me it's amazing because what they do with people with disabilities."
Moore does it all. She's responsible for sewing buttonholes, buttons, pressing the pants and more. She said learning the different jobs has been easy, despite her ability to see like her coworkers.
She said when she was learning something new she would start slow. First she learned how to do the job, next she would find her rhythm and then came the speed.
Now, some of her coworkers call her NASCAR because of her ability to work quickly.
Moore said she doesn't let her disability slow her down in life.
"It's my way of life," she said. "You can do anything you want to. I don't take no. I don't do the word no. Don’t tell me I can't do this. I'm gonna do it."
Her positive attitude and drive has led to a major award. Last year Moore was awarded with outstanding achievement and exceptional character by SourceAmerica.
"Out of 400 people they choose me," she exclaimed. "I just always wanted to win that award and when I did it was just it was awesome. It was just amazing."
Moore said if there's one thing she wants people to know, it's this: "No matter what in life, if it's something you want to do, you can do it. Don’t let nobody tell you no you can't. You can do it."
For more information about VGS and their services, click here.