Stars, Stripes and Strength: People with Disabilities Stitch Symbols of Comfort for Veterans’ Families
By Kerry McGinley
Aaron Alexander knows that each stitch he sews crafts a symbol of comfort for grieving families of American veterans. He takes tremendous pride in his work producing interment flags for Veterans Affairs to share with families of fallen service members.
"I'm extremely, extremely proud," he said. "To me, this is not just a job, it's a career."
He's employed by North Bay Industries, a nonprofit that hires people with disabilities through an AbilityOne contract that ensures people with disabilities have employment opportunities and choices. He works as a top stitcher on the flags, a job that requires him to sew to very strict specifications to pass inspections deeming them fit for distribution.
"My goal is to learn everything, all the machines," he said. "The grommet machine, the stripes, the stars – everything."
Despite learning disabilities that caused issues at other jobs, Alexander is flourishing in the position, said Jennifer Britton, production manager for North Bay Industries. For the past two years, Alexander has worked alongside 32 colleagues with disabilities to produce about 83,000 interment flags per year.
"What we do here, it's patriotic," Britton said. "Everybody knows what the American flag means. We're providing it for people who've served our country. The majority of my (employee) population have intellectual developmental disabilities, learning disabilities. It's really rewarding to see them learn a job and the pride they take in the operations they're able to perform."
Alexander was recently selected by North Bay Industries to represent the organization at SourceAmerica's Grassroots Advocacy Conference. The annual event brings 50 self-advocates with disabilities to Washington, D.C., for meetings with their legislators.
Alexander was excited to embark on his first trip to the nation's capital, which included an extra day for sightseeing. He visited Fort Myer and met with members of the elite Old Guard, which escorts families at military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. A news crew from NBC Nightly News joined Aaron for that visit as well as his meeting with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.
Alexander understands all too well the meaning of those funerals and flags for families. He stitched one for his father, a 20-year veteran of the Navy, after his sudden death last year.
Alexander enjoys working alongside colleagues who share his enthusiasm for their work.
"I never really had a team," he said. "I played soccer, but teamwork is the best work. I really appreciate their motivation, it really inspires me to keep going and be my best."
He also appreciates the support he gets to grow his work skills and be accepted for who he is.
"I had some bad jobs in my past where I didn't feel respected or important," he said. "Here at this job, I feel so cool here. I feel like I have a relationship here. It's like a bond. You know that feeling when you work hard and you go to bed and you feel like you made a touchdown?"
North Bay Industries is one of three nonprofits in the SourceAmerica network that fulfills an AbilityOne contract to produce interment flags for the VA. With Phoenix Vocational Services of Huntsville, Alabama, and Goodwill Industries of South Florida in Miami, the three NPAs together produce 250,000 flags per year – half of the total 500,000 flags the VA offers for veterans' families.
At Goodwill Industries of South Florida, Inc., 52 employees produce the interment flags. The apparel and flag division employs about 1,000 people, according to Sherri Scyphers Hungate, vice president. Goodwill also sells other American flags of different sizes and fabrics to commercial clients, municipalities and the public from their Miami retail store and online. She attributes much of Goodwill's success in the employment of people with significant disabilities to SourceAmerica and the AbilityOne program. Under AbilityOne, Goodwill Industries of South Florida is one of the largest combat uniform manufacturers in the United States. But flag production has significant meaning to the organization, Scyphers Hungate said.
"It is such a privilege for Goodwill employees to manufacture the flag furnished by Department of Veterans Affairs to honor the memory of a veteran's military service to his or her country," she said. "The interment flag is so very special to our nation and to the families of our heroes."
Phoenix employs 22 people with disabilities specifically for flag manufacturing. It represents roughly 70 percent of the nonprofit's manufacturing business, said Wes Tyler, vice president of Phoenix.
"It's been the heart of Phoenix for more than 20 years," he said. "It's a huge part of who we are and what we do on a day-to-day basis. It's really the focal point of every tour we give."
SourceAmerica CEO Steve Soroka visited Phoenix June 9 to commemorate the production of the organization's 2 millionth flag. Each of the three nonprofits working on the flag contract has produced roughly 2 million flags for a total contribution of 6 million flags for grieving families since flag manufacturing began in 1994. When he spoke to the organization's employees, he praised their contribution to military families across the country.
"You know you make quality flags," he said. "But I'm here to remind you that you also make impressions and give comfort. The flags you make will drape over caskets. They will be folded, encased and displayed in homes. They will catch tears. They will be embraced by loved ones. They are more than fabric and thread. They are the symbol of duty, honor, country. The flags represent integrity and service before self."