What a difference 50 years can make.
When Southeast Kentucky Rehabilitation Industries (SEKRI) was founded in Corbin on May 10, 1971, with the purpose of serving people with mental and physical disabilities, when there were virtually no employment opportunities in Southeast Kentucky for people with significant disabilities.
“From talking to some folks, the goal was just to create jobs for people who had disabilities. Apparently there was no place in the area for somebody, who at that time primarily had physical disabilities, to be able to go to work and contribute in a fashion. No company and no business would do so,” said SEKRI Director of Purchasing Stan Baker.
“My understanding is they started off with anything that they could do. One of the things they got into very early on was upholstery work and furniture refinishing.”
About eight years ago, Baker said ran into someone, who told him about still having a piece of furniture in her living room that SEKRI refurbished around 1974 or 1975.
“She said they did a fabulous job,” Baker said. “It was apparently a big deal in the late 1970s with the furniture refinishing stuff.”
Things took off for the organization in the mid-1980s when it started manufacturing items for the military through a program now called the AbilityOne Program, which coordinates government purchases of products and services provided by non-profit agencies whose workforce is comprised of a minimum of 75 percent disabled individuals.
In 1993, SEKRI moved into a new 30,000 square foot facility where the organization began to produce sewn products for the U.S. military. By 1996, SEKRI’s manufacturing operations for military apparel had grown to $1.8 million in annual sales. Additional facilities were added as the company grew and continued to reach out to serve the disabled populations in other communities.
SEKRI currently employees about 700 workers at its eight locations throughout the region.
“Anybody, who has been here for a long period of time, has to be amazed at everything that has transpired here,” Baker said.
“Some of the challenges that companies like SEKRI face is not how to make something and all that. One of the hardest things to do is to find people,” Baker said.
Society is set up so that people with disabilities don’t have to work. They can get by on what they get sent every week from the government, Baker noted.
“There is no need to find anything else to do. There just isn’t. What we have found is a big percentage of them want to work. They want to do something,” Baker said.
“You have some folks, who have never been encouraged by the folks around them to do something other than what they have always done, which is sit on a couch or whatever,” Baker said.
“I know that companies, like SERKI, that created jobs for people, who want to work and who have never really been afforded the opportunity or encouragement to do so, are creating situations where people could live longer because everybody needs a purpose. I don’t care who you are.”
He added that everybody can do something, and there are some people with pretty significant disabilities, who are working at SEKRI.
The company has a lot of turnover among new employees during the first six months, but after that, SEKRI employees tend to stick around for quite some time or move on to positions at better paying employers.
There aren’t any employees currently working at SEKRI, who were there when the plant first opened, but a number of long-time employees still work there.
The third longest tenured employee at the Corbin plant is Plant Manager Delena Mills, who has been with the company for 25 years and started out doing sewing before becoming a supervisor.
Mills noted that the company has undergone various changes during her tenure, including the amount of work.
When she first started, the volume of work was much higher with two shifts of employees working and weekend shifts.
“I started out on a Saturday and we had one mechanic, who had a screwdriver in his pocket. Now we have a big shop back here with three mechanics and 112 people here now,” she said about the Corbin manufacturing plant.
Mills said that when an inspector or supervisor position comes up, SEKRI tries to move up employees already working there as opposed to looking for help from the outside.
Brenda Middleton has been working at the plant for nearly 25 years.
“There are a few of us, who have been here that long,” she said.
“More people have been hired. More products have been added to give people jobs,” Middleton said about the changes she has seen over the years noting she is planning to work another three or four years there.
Middleton said there are some practical things she likes about working for SEKRI, such as the fact that it is close to home, which keeps her from spending a lot of money on gas.
“The people are good here. I have enjoyed working for Delena and the company. It has been good. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed,” she added.
Next 50 years
Where does SEKRI go during the next 50 years?
Executive Director Leo Miller admits that this is a good question.
SEKRI is always looking for work.
Director of Manufacturing Barry Perret is in his office constantly pricing new items that SEKRI might be able to manufacture.
The company hopes to still be making items for the Department of Defense for the next 50 years.
If something happens to the manufacturing sector, Miller noted that SEKRI could look at going the service route, like other non-profits have done, such as cleaning federal courthouses.
“I think we are just going to continue to see changes in materials and rural Kentucky. I think we just have to stay on the cutting edge and have to hire great people, and have a great team and I think the next 50 years will be even better,” Miller said.
Miller noted that the company has good support from our Kentucky delegation of senators and representatives.
“They are always willing to support and go to bat for us. They believe in our mission. They believe in SEKRI. They want these jobs here. We are at 700 employees now. We hope to have 1,000 employees in 20 years,” he said.
Baker added, “Folks who have disabilities should not be discarded or set over to the side. Everybody has ability, and everybody has some form of a disability. We have to get our folks, who are making the decisions at this level, to understand that being inclusive doesn’t just talk about heritage and skin color, or male or female. It should talk about everybody.”