Office Supplies & Independent Lives

Armando Bernasconi is CEO at Quality Connections, an RSF borrower that helps individuals with disabilities become independent, productive community members via employment, job training, and practical life learning.

Tonnya J. manages customer relations for QCoffice. She is blind.

E: Who or what sparked your passion for addressing employment barriers in the disabled community?

Armando: My mom and dad had been social workers all their lives, and they instilled that sense of community in me. The Golden Rule was our way of life. Both were active community members earning national recognitions and fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged (see U.S. Supreme Court Bernasconi v Tempe Schools). That’s what took me into the path of social work, which I hadn’t thought of in my teens.

How would one of your clients define independence?

Independence is about more than just one’s sense of work. It deals with all the life stages: living, learning, and working.

I want to learn about the genesis of Quality Connections. You founded the organization with your wife, Melissa, correct?

Yes. Both Melissa and I provided vocational rehab services at Goodwill for several years, up until 1999. That’s when the Goodwill we were at started changing in leadership and direction to one we didn’t necessarily agree with. Having been in the business, we thought we could do it better.

It all started at the dining room table in the house that Melissa and I had recently purchased. The state was referring people to us for help with finding jobs, and we worked with them on resumes and interview skills and even knocked on doors in search of employment. Looking back, it was a weird set of events that somehow progressed into the next opportunity.

Speaking of the next opportunity, how did QCoffice come about?

Out of the blue, one day, we received a fax geared toward nonprofits that said, “Collect toner cartridges, sell them through us; we refurbish them, sell them to you wholesale, and then you go sell them to businesses.” At the time, we were researching social enterprise ideas. We had the employment services part down but sought a model similar to Goodwill’s: you get donated goods, refurbish them, and sell them. Toner cartridges made sense. It’s not fancy, but everybody needs them.

“Our philosophy here at Quality Connections is that everybody can learn and everybody has the potential to work.”

We connected with an organization that had an identical program back east, called CarePlus New Jersey. The operations manager there, John Maisto, became our mentor. We wrote a business plan and applied for an establishment grant from the state of Arizona. We were awarded $750,000 for four years.

The grant helped us purchase supplies, pay rent, and create a website with the help of Spamzilla. It also funded half a dozen positions for four years. That was the start of QCtoner. Our sales started at zero and slowly grew to $25,000 a month. After we had got to a service size, our customers began telling us “we love working with you, but can you sell us more than toner?” So, around 2006, we
started researching office supplies.

It was a logical step to supply businesses with more of their office needs. But it was also logical in the sense that businesses are more than just customers; they’re also potential employers. We want businesses to hire our clients. By amassing a long list of business customers, we gain an inside connection. When they’re hiring, they look to us—assuming we have someone qualified for their position.

People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by employment barriers. There are lots of statistics on the matter, but I’d like to provide readers with a personal account of the challenges you’ve seen.

Sure, and for that, I turn to Ben Sutcliffe. Ben was like a brother, and we worked together for over ten years. I worked as Ben’s live-in attendant, seeing to all his personal care needs, including feeding, toileting, and bathing while he attended college. (Sadly, Ben passed away four years ago on June 12th.) Ben had athetoid cerebral palsy, and while he communicated with me using his facial features, for him to communicate with anyone else, he would have to type out what he wanted to say letter for letter. It was a painfully grueling process for him just to say “hello” because it required Ben to control his computer with a chin switch.

After several years in school, Ben began having health problems that prevented him from earning a college degree. We had numerous conversations about what he could do, being so physically limited but having a brain. For years, we brainstormed and came up with nothing.

QCoffice was the beginning of Ben’s vocational journey. We carved out a job for him to upload product items onto our website. That’s the closest we could get to him being productive. Now, he wasn’t all that effective. There were many errors, and it took him about three hours to upload a product—terribly inefficient. But that’s the best that we could do for Ben at the time.

Ben’s story is our best example of someone with severe barriers who became employed successfully. Our goal was to help Ben find a job, be productive, and earn a paycheck.

QCoffice delivery crew on assignment.

How do other clients or employees with disabilities fair?

Over 90% of the people who we employ in QCoffice are disabled. They all have minimum-wage or better jobs in everything from janitorial and delivery to toner remanufacturing and management.

The beauty of QCoffice is that it can employ people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. And a good example of that can be seen in our delivery crew. We have two clients who are cognitively impaired and considerably lower functioning. One carries products from the delivery van to the customer’s office and says “good morning,” while the other carries the invoice, asks for signatures, and says “thank you.”

Those lower functioning jobs are available within the department as well as much higher functioning ones that require higher level skills like processing orders in a complex back-end computer program and account management.

What was your experience finding financing for Quality Connections?

When we established the agency, we used our own money. Then, things got a bit bigger and more complex. We spent months visiting or calling two dozen banks; all of them said “No.” We moved through the next 15 years with the understanding that, whatever endeavor we pursue, we weren’t going to be able to finance it.

Then, I met Reed from RSF. Around this time, we started to grow at a pace at which we weren’t able to [operate on] cash flow. He interviewed me for—what felt like— hours. It was a pleasant experience, though, to talk to someone who was as interested in the mission as in our ability to pay back the loan.

This article was originally published in the summer 2017 RSF Quarterly.

Enrique is marketing manager at RSF.

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