An organization originally founded to provide services for the blind has evolved into one of Cambria County's leading international exporters.
Today, millions of cable support hangers and safety products are manufactured and shipped from the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped Ebensburg building each year. Products are shipped to more than 1,000 mines in 20 countries around the world.
The association, often referred to as "CAB," is also a leading employer of people with disabilities - employing 150 at Ebensburg and another 133 at its Johnstown facility.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Pat Bosar of Northern Cambria operates a machine that makes a lifeline used in the mining industry that would guide workers to safety in the event of an accident at the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped Ebensburg building.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Jeremy Yahnert of Nanty Glo carries a rack of straps that were applied with a plastic coating at the CAB building in Ebensburg. The coating increases the lifespan of the straps.
CAB was founded May 12, 1927, in Johnstown after members of the Johnstown Lions Club wanted Cambria County to have its own branch of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind.
Throughout the early years, blind and handicapped workers made products such as floor mops and rugs.
Because of the need for services for blind and handicapped people in the northern part of the county, the Ebensburg location opened in 1974 in a two-story building on Lloyd Street near the county courthouse.
Shortly after the arrival of current company president Richard Bosserman, who joined the association as executive director in 1967, manufacturing took off. CAB has grown from what Bosserman said was a "very small income agency, depending on contributions to keep the lights on" to a $59 million organization.
"We began to aggressively pursue nontraditional markets and broadened the scope of what we did in the early 1970s. Dick had a vision of larger things," said Allen Smith, general manager of the Ebensburg Division.
CAB started manufacturing a variety of plastic-coated wire hooks and hangers for the mining industry shortly after the Ebensburg Division opened in 1974.
Bosserman said sales manager Pete Hoover had brought a small wire hanger with plastic coating to him and asked "if we could make it?"
"I said we can make it, but what is it? That is how the mine hangers started for us," Bosserman said.
As business grew, CAB needed more space, and in 1988 it bought 5 acres of land in the Cambria County Industrial Park and put up a 27,000-square-foot building.
In 1998, a 27,000-square-foot addition was built, and in 2008 another 30,000 square feet were added, giving CAB an 84,000-square-foot facility.
Today, CAB makes thousands of hangers in various sizes and shapes, which are insulated with a heavy coating of high dielectric grade, flame-retardant plastisol.
"The coating on our hangers makes us stand apart from our competitors. It has become a trademark of our CAB brand," Smith said.
In 1985, CAB became the first company to make lifelines for underground mines.
The CAB Lifeline is available in rope and heavy duty aircraft cable styles to meet the wide variety of requirements found in the underground mining industry.
"It is used to assist miners to get out in the case of a fire or dense smoke. It is now mandatory in mines. We sell great quantities of it. We are the leader in the industry," Smith said.
Every type of mine in Canada uses our products," Bosserman said.
CAB manufactures a lot of niche products.
"We have salesmen who find out what the mining companies need. They meet with safety managers and mine foremen. We have developed a steady stream of new products. The mining industry has given a lot of help to us," Smith said.
CAB attends numerous trade shows, including the recent Expomin 2014 in Santiago, Chile, the largest mining show held in Latin America with more than 1,400 exhibitors and more than 80,000 visitors expected.
The Johnstown facility, which is in the midst of an $11 million expansion project, manufactures safety vests and reflective clothing for PennDOT.
"They really stand out. Our vests are of real high quality and are very visible," Smith said.
High visibility mine safety products and mine hangers, high visibility apparel, aircraft insulation blankets, high visibility bags and covers, custom sewn products and food service kits also are made in Johnstown.
"The biggest area that made us grow was making food service kits to be sold to hospitals. We went from zero kits to 16 million kits at Johnstown," Bosserman said.
The primary reason CAB got into manufacturing was to provide jobs for the disabled workers of the area.
"We wanted to provide employment for people who wanted a job but couldn't work competitively. With the demand for work, it was a natural fit. It was a win-win for us and the people. They were able to get out of their homes and make our products. We are here to help them accomplish something and develop independence," Smith said.
The workers are very important to the success of CAB.
"It is all about the people. The people are the big reason that we are here. We are here to serve them. We have a very dedicated and hard-working workforce. That is the bottom line. They are a pleasure to work with. They make you want to come to work," Smith said.
Smith admits some companies are reluctant to buy CAB products.
"Some companies are reluctant to buy from you because the products are made by people with disabilities. We had to educate our new customers. We have to break down barriers along the way. We make as good of products as anybody, and in most cases better," Smith said.
"We survived not because our prices were lower but because of the quality and tremendous delivery service we provide," Bosserman said.
With manufacturing a big part of its success, part of CAB's mission remains the prevention of blindness.
Since 1974, CAB has conducted free vision screenings throughout schools in Cambria County.
"Last year, we did 665 vision screenings at schools and 2,044 students received education in eye health and eye safety," Smith said.
CAB's Growing Older with Good Vision program educates adults and emphasizes important information about signs and symptoms of various eye diseases and conditions, as well as ways to keep and make the most out of the vision you have.
CAB also performs home inspections for visually impaired clients and installs free safety devices such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, bathtub rails and safety lights.
Smith is optimistic about the future - CAB is now making wire management systems for the solar industry.
CAB Cable Rings and Saddles for PV Ground Mount Cable Management have been selected as a finalist for the Intersolar Award 2014 in the Photovoltaics category. Award winners will be announced June 4 at Intersolar Europe in Munich, Germany, which is the largest solar trade show in the world, Smith said.
Many people are not aware of CAB.
"We don't beat our own drums. Our main job is to provide rehabilitative services. People aren't aware of the amount of work we do and the scope of the product lines and service that we provide," Smith said.
"We don't promote ourselves. That is part of my philosophy. We don't have to solicit for contributions. I am working on behalf of the nearly 300 people who work for us and over 200 who are visually impaired that we provide services for," Bosserman said.
Meanwhile, other organizations such as Skills of Central Pennsylvania and Goodwill Industries of the Conemaugh Valley also provide employment for many people with disabilities throughout the area.
Through its industrial services program, Skills of Central Pennsylvania provides people with disabilities an opportunity to gain more marketable work skills through hands-on experience in a paid work setting.
Approximately 160 people with disabilities work through Skills vocational training program at the former Huck Jacobson building, 4601 Cortland Ave, Altoona.
"We are similar but different. They [CAB] are the source of their products while we rely on the work to be outsourced to us from businesses," said Justin Beigle, regional vice president for Blair and Bedford counties.
New Pig Corp. is one of its major clients.
"We cut rope to size and hook it onto rings. We also do some packaging and labeling of marketing materials for them," Beigle said.
Skills recently started to manufacture a product at the Cortland Avenue facility.
"We invested money into equipment that enables us to make puzzles. People can bring in a photo, and we can blow it up and turn it into a puzzle," Beigle said.
Skills' goal is to help the workers.
"The ultimate goal is to teach them marketable job skills they can use, to land a competitive paying job in the community. Learning job skills and earning a paycheck is pretty important to them," Beigle said.
Since the first of the year, Skills has placed approximately 15 people with disabilities in competitive, community-based jobs. The hirings run the spectrum of businesses throughout Blair County.
"We have been having a good bit of success with Lowes and Walmart. These two businesses, though, have been great partners for a while now, Beigle said.
Goodwill Industries of the Conemaugh Valley operates under Goodwill's originating philosophy of believing that work plays a critical role in the ability of individuals to achieve desirable life outcomes and that through work, individuals are able to assume, in addition to the role of the worker, other roles within the community, said marketing coordinator Debbie Roman.
"GICV seeks to serve those persons served in the broadest sense of providing them with opportunities to control their own lives effectively while becoming positive, functional, interdependent members of our shared community, regardless of what their barriers are," Roman said. "GICV's vision is that individuals and families with employment barriers in our region will become employed, self-sufficient and integrated into the community."
GICV operates "Go To by Goodwill," a custodial, ground keeping, hand assembly, and light manufacturing jobs enterprise. GICV's most well-known enterprise is the Goodwill Retail Stores where each year thousands of people donate their gently used items to Goodwill where they are sorted, sold and recycled to generate jobs and funds for local job training opportunities, Roman said.
The revenues fund local job training programs that have helped thousands of people in the counties of Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Huntingdon, Indiana, Somerset and portions of Westmoreland.
In 2013, GICV employed 272 individuals with and without disabilities and provided 208 trainees with job skills training to enable them to seek employment in the community. GICV assisted 279 individuals to obtain competitive employment in our communities.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.