Columbia Industries celebrates big 5-0

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 7, 2013 

Rich Foeppel keeps a special business card in his wallet. It's tattered because he's been carrying it for years.

"I've met congressmen and senators. The labor secretary. ... I've had important people's business cards in my wallet over the years. But I've never carried a lot of them," Foeppel said. "But I carry that one."

It belonged to a disabled man named Harry, proclaiming him the No. 1 dishwasher at a lodge in Naches. Foeppel met Harry during a stop at the lodge, and admired the care he took in his work.

"He took me back and showed me the big Hobart dishwasher that he ran," Foeppel recalled. "It kind of instilled in me that -- it doesn't matter who you are -- if you take pride in what you do, it's an important job."

It's a lesson reinforced daily at Foeppel's workplace -- he's president and chief executive officer of Columbia Industries, which has the mission of helping people with disabilities develop their job skills.

The Kennewick-based nonprofit is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and leaders are planning events to mark the milestone, including an initiative to thank longtime supporters and a scholarship program for clients.

Columbia Industries started in 1963 as the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Benton and Franklin Counties. It adopted its current name in the 1980s, and today offers training, on-site employment and community-based job placement. It also runs a document shredding operation and a program that connects businesses, primarily Hanford contractors, with college interns.

The organization's annual budget averages $5 million to $7 million, with the bulk coming from the business operations. The rest comes from government funding, fundraising and United Way dollars.

Foeppel said securing employment helps clients on the road to independence and self-sufficiency.

Two of the organization's centerpiece programs are CI Solutions and Shop CI -- both of which provide jobs for clients. The latter is a community thrift store at 810 S. Dayton St.

CI Solutions is a few blocks away. At that site, clients do assembly and production work, from preparing bulk mailers for businesses to making cloth welding hoods for Bremerton's Naval shipyard.

Foeppel gave a tour on a recent afternoon. A handful of clients cut cotton fabric for the hoods and marked out where the gaps for the eyes needed to go. There were lots of smiles.

Rick Farmer, 45, of Pasco, has been a Columbia Industries worker for 15 years. He said he likes coming to work. It makes him happy. His favorite task is labeling the ducks used in the annual Mid-Columbia Duck Race. "It's fun," he said, adding that he likes coming to work because of "the people."

On any given day, about 75 clients are employed on-site and another 25 at businesses around the community, Foeppel said. He didn't have a count of the total number of clients served during his organization's 50 years, but it's likely in the thousands.

The golden anniversary is significant, Foeppel said -- a sign that "the people that came before me, in terms of leadership, did a good job. I think they laid some pretty strong foundations."

It has him thinking about the next 50 years, and reflecting on the mission at the heart of Columbia Industries.

"I think a job is a way to identify who we are. It's critically important to people," Foeppel said, adding that Columbia Industries clients often like to get shirts and hats bearing the nonprofit's name.

"They're proud to be at Columbia Industries. It's part of their self-worth," he said. "They feel proud to have a job."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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