Workshops Inc., a staple in the Birmingham nonprofit world for more than 120 years, has announced a new name signaling a shift toward better representing the organization’s mission and impact: Workshops Empowerment Inc.
Established in 1900 as Workshop and Rehabilitation Facilities for the Blind and Disabled, Workshops originally employed people with vision impairment to make brooms and mops. The nonprofit later expanded to operate sewing rooms and secured government contracts during both world wars. Woodworking, upholstery and general craft work followed as the organization tackled workforce development in Alabama.
Throughout its history, Workshops has trained and placed thousands of workers who faced a variety of barriers to employment, from visual impairment to traumatic brain injury to recent incarceration. Over time, the nonprofit felt its name just wasn’t standing up to the real impact it was making in the community and its true mission of empowering people with employment barriers to enter the workforce and achieve their vocational potential.
“The milestone of our 120th anniversary brought the opportunity to assess the organization’s name and realign it with our work and our mission,” said Joel Blackstock, president of the board for Workshops Empowerment.
“We empower people to reach their potential,” Blackstock added. “The shift to Workshops Empowerment honors our history and casts a vision for our impact moving forward. People continue to face barriers to employment, while our state faces a vast shortfall in the skilled workforce. We have experience meeting one foundational need with the other.”
“Our driving force is to see that every person in central Alabama with a disability who wants a job, gets a job,” said Executive Director Susan Crow. “The name shift reinforces our focus on people. Our success is wrapped up in the success of so many individuals that it’s been our honor to support. So, we’re partial to our new initials: WE.”
In 2017, Workshops, a United Way-affiliated agency supported by the Alabama Power Foundation, expanded programming to include handmade products under the name Avondale Mercantile. The organization has rebranded the line to “WE Made” and expanded its product offerings, from handmade wood fire starters, stinky dog sprays, linen and room sprays and an all-natural insect repellent to now making a line of bread mixes.
Emily Thornton West has been brought on to lead WE Made as program manager. “I believe in the power of meaningful employment and community to enrich people’s lives,” said West. “I am excited to build a new program and product line, but I am most excited to work alongside the WE Made participants as they gain the skills and confidence to reach their vocational potential.”
The expansion of the WE Made product line will allow Workshops to train an additional 24 people per year. Trainees will learn about product development, manufacturing and inventory maintenance. They also train to receive their food handler’s license and “serve safe” designation. The six-month program offers trainees a chance to specialize in other areas, such as social media or learning to drive a truck. The enterprise produces quality products while providing job training to people with significant barriers to employment. Products will be available for purchase on the Workshops Empowerment website or from local retail partners.
Last year’s global outbreak of COVID-19 had a severe impact on nonprofits across the state, causing many to close their doors temporarily. Workshops shut down following Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide order in March, leaving the nearly 1,000 people who depend on its programs in a state of uncertainty. However, after putting strict safety measures in place, Workshops welcomed back program participants after seven weeks.
“We had to really make sure that everyone understands the fact that we are completely reliant on one another right now to keep things going,” said Crow. “The last thing we want is to put anyone in harm’s way and we’ve been so grateful, and lucky, that we’ve been able to continue to offer our programing through this unprecedented time.”
The pandemic, which forced many companies to ask employees to work from home, created a unique opportunity for Workshops to fill more orders by preassembling items into ready-to-ship kits or gift boxes. Some local companies are sending pandemic-related and team-building care packages to employees’ homes. This uptick in business, as well as receiving a federal coronavirus relief loan, has helped Workshops continue its mission during tough times.
“We’re very fortunate to have ended 2020 on good footing, but we are always looking to the future and open to new opportunities,” said Crow. “Whether that be new business customers or creating relationships with local businesses who have an interest in hiring graduates of our programs. We’re always striving to find new ways to help our participants reach their full potential.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)