City Blog is taking a look at the good work performed by corporate citizens. Phoenix, which produces flags for the Veterans Administration that are used for veterans’ funerals, provides employment opportunities for those with severe vocational disabilities.
Miles of red, white and blue ribbon figurately weave the entire operation together. Sewing machines softly hum in the spacious, well-lit building. A worker flaps one of the finished products above a long work table as if to chase away any wrinkles.
It is part glory, part solemnity. All things considered, it’d actually be quite wonderful if Phoenix, a Huntsville-based company that employs disabled workers at its Johnson Road location, weren’t doing such a robust business.
Since 1991, Phoenix has sewn American flags used for funerals of military veterans. Last summer, it made its two millionth flag. According to Bryan Dodson, the CEO of Phoenix, it produces some 300 flags per day; a sobering stat on this Veterans Week is that a U.S. military veteran dies every 28 seconds.
“Who can’t appreciate the sacrifices veterans have made and make every day,” Dodson says. “For us, it’s a real honor to produce that flag.”
The primary product for Phoenix is American flags. But its primary business is producing opportunity for the disabled.
A unique vision
The polio epidemic of the 1950s prompted the Junior League and Shriners to raise funds for physical restoration equipment for those afflicted with the disease. From there emerged an organization that became part of Alabama Easter Seals.
In the early 1970s, some visionaries had the idea to transform the company into a non-profit that operated on a business model, rather than as a traditional charity. It would perform services for hire that would fund the operation. It became Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation, Inc., doing business as Phoenix.
The decision dovetailed nicely with the amendment to a federal law allowing the government more flexibility to purchase from companies with disabled workers. Phoenix, with a sewing operation already in place, began what has been a 47-year history with Redstone Arsenal by manufacturing the sewn parts used in missile systems.
Who can’t appreciate the sacrifices veterans have made and make every day. For us, it’s a real honor to produce that flag.”
In the mid-1980s, the Veterans Administration sadly had the growing need for interment flags. Law required that at least half of those flags must be from companies that employed disabled workers and Phoenix earned a contract with the VA.
Phoenix continues other sewing products. It has made more than two million one-point-release parachute harnesses, it makes carrying straps and equipment bags for tow missiles and fire curtains for the Department of Navy to be installed on ships.
There are 65 employees on the manufacturing side and some 500 Phoenix employees at Redstone Arsenal in a variety of jobs, from operating mailrooms, handling security reception, custodial work and landscape management. Regulations for such government contracts require that 75 percent of the direct labor must be performed by people with a severe vocational disability; Phoenix is at 83 percent. Phoenix employs more than 90 disabled veterans.
“There are all kinds of disabilities,” Dodson says. “Out of the approximately 500 people we employ, there are probably 150 different disabilities – emotional, intellectual, physical, severe learning disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and substance abuse, if the person is clean and in a treatment program.”
Additionally, Phoenix assists disabled workers throughout North Alabama in job placement, “working to match the person to the job and the job to the person so they have a good likelihood of success.”
Phoenix has produced nearly as many success stories as flags, it seems. But Dodson quickly retrieves one from his memory bank.
“One that touches me is a young lady who is still employed,” he says. “She kept being fired from jobs. We did a comprehension test and the doctor told me she had the worst condition of dyslexia he had ever seen, and she had no idea. When he described it to her, she broke down and cried. She said, ‘You mean I’m not a bad person.’ Somebody had convinced her it was all her fault.”
The Colonel leads the way
Dodson sits at a table in his office, with its floor-to-ceiling glass, in a sprawling building separated from the manufacturing building by a small courtyard. A 65-year-old native of Sheffield, Dodson and his wife Gayle are fathers of three sons, Jarrod, Nick and Matt. He has served as Phoenix CEO since 1981, though he’ll turn over the reins some time in 2018.
Hung on the wall at the center of the trio of diplomas, slightly higher than the others, is Dodson’s certificate of graduation from the U.S. War College. Says Dodson, “One of the highest honors of my career.” The others note his bachelor’s from The University of Alabama and the masters from Alabama A&M.
He is a man as neatly sewn into the military fabric as the stripes on the flag. He served four years of active duty and 26 in the Army reserves, retiring as a full colonel.
He is “a child of the greatest generation.” His father was deployed as a combat engineer in World War II. His father in law “turned 18 in a foxhole in Europe.”
“We, as a nation, are what we are because of the men and women who were willing to fight and defend it,” Dodson says. “To be able to be a part of, in a very small way, honoring that service at the time of their demise is truly a special responsibility and privilege for us.”