Chicago Lighthouse Profile: Rita McCabe

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She estimates that she has made nearly one million clocks.

One of her proudest moments was presenting her mom with one of those clocks that has lasted more than 25 years.

She has been quoted nationally about her work in the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

Meet Rita McCabe, one of the employees on the assembly line at Lighthouse Industries, a program of The Chicago Lighthouse that holds the official contract for manufacturing clocks for the U.S. government.  Indeed, clocks made at the Lighthouse are displayed in federal offices across the country and around the globe.

A native of Minnesota, Rita, who is totally blind, first came to the Lighthouse in the mid 70s while a member of the Salvation Army.  She joined the agency in 1979 and has been an employee there ever since.

“I enjoy my job,” she smiles.  “I appreciate being able to support myself plus have an opportunity to work with so many wonderful people!”

Rita goes about her daily tasks with much precision a she assembles the clock from components that include the body, movement, dial, hour and minute hands.  She assembles clocks of various sizes and styles, and then places the sub-assembly on the assembly line where the remaining components are assembled.  The end product is fully tested for accuracy, boxed and shipped to destinations far and wide.

In a given year, the Lighthouse, which will celebrate its 105th anniversary in 2011, manufactures between 160,000 and 200,000 clocks per year.

For employees like Rita, this program has provided steady employment at a time when people who are blind cope with a jobless rate that hovers near 70%.

“She is a fantastic member of our team,” states Jean Claude Kappler, vice president of Lighthouse Industries who oversees the clock-making operation.

“Like so many of our employees who are blind or visually impaired, Rita has a strong work ethic and brings a craftsmanship-like quality to her job.”

He adds that the quality of Lighthouse clocks is one of the reasons the program has been able to thrive for the past 30 years.

When Rita checks out of the factory for the day, she turns her attention to her other interests including volunteer work at her church and rooting for her favorite teams, the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and her beloved Chicago White Sox.

A resident of the city’s south side, she makes no bones about being a big White Sox fan.

Asked about her resolutions for the coming new year, Rita responds with a chuckle, “I never make resolutions because I know I can’t keep them!”

Though, she looks forward to making even more clocks in 2011.

Success Story from Mary Fisher: Beatrice Zulu

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A mattress, a stove, a cupboard; clothes for her three children and her teenaged sister and brother. Beaming with pride, Beatrice Zulu lists the items she has purchased with her pay from The ABATAKA Collection. The project, she says, has changed her family’s life. The children look up to her as a breadwinner, able to provide. And in her community, Beatrice says, “People see me as a person now.”

It wasn’t always so. Beatrice, 36, knows well the stigma and fear surrounding HIV/AIDS: Though she cared for her sister Patricia until her death in 2002, her sister only told Beatrice on her deathbed that she had AIDS. Because Beatrice knew her husband had been sexually active outside their marriage, when she became pregnant in 2002, she took an HIV test – but told no one it came back positive. She enrolled in a clinic program to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV; her baby was born HIV-negative but lived only a year.

After divorcing her husband, Beatrice struggled to raise her children alone despite increasing bouts of illness. In 2005, a new clinic opened near her; she discreetly started on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and began attending HIV-positive support groups. When Beatrice’s father learned where she went every day, he revealed her status to the community and drove her from her home. Unable to pay rent, Beatrice stayed with whomever would house her; she drew comfort from the support group, volunteering as a peer counselor.

In 2006, Beatrice joined the jewelry project. Today, she lives in a two-room house with electricity, has money to pay her children’s school fees – and even has opened her home to her father, now blind and very ill. “It is hard to have him here,” she says, “but he is starting to understand” and to appreciate all she has achieved. In mid-2008, she found paid work as an HIV/AIDS counselor.

Beatrice feels strongly the importance of educating her community about HIV/AIDS, and empowering Zambia’s women through enterprises such as The ABATAKA Collection. “I am so proud of this project,” she says. “I promise I will never stop.”

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