Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of articles about finalists for 2014 Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDIs).
Michael Vigil was the lead customer service and sales representative on duty at the nonprofit IndependenceFirst Mobility Store in Wauwatosa when a customer came in requesting a power chair that would allow her to get around despite her disability. She also requested a payment plan so she could afford the motorized vehicle.
“She walked out with her power chair and she was just jumping out of her skin because she was so happy,” said Vigil, who added that he was glad he could meet her needs. “[That] day’s a day that I’m walking on air.”
Vigil is in his fourth year as an employee at IndependenceFirst, which is a finalist for a Milwaukee Award for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDI). The awards are sponsored by U.S. Bank, in partnership with LISC Milwaukee.
Along with Just One More Ministry and 16th Street Community Health Center’s Kinnickinnic River Corridor Initiative, IndependenceFirst Mobility Store is up for the PNC Bank Trail Blazer Award for an innovative approach to a community problem. The winner will be announced at a dinner April 9.
IndependenceFirst takes donations of medical equipment and sends them to Redgranite Correctional Institute, where they are sanitized and refurbished by inmates before being sent back to the store to be sold. The store sells its products at approximately 70 percent off the original retail price.
The store’s main focus is on the health, safety and independence of each customer, according to its website. Among the factors customers need to consider are whether the mobility vehicle will be used primarily indoors or outdoors, and the measurements of hallways and doors.
In addition, Vigil said, salespeople make sure that the equipment is comfortable and gives the user a feeling of security. “We don’t want them to feel tight or like they’re going to fall out of a piece of equipment,” he added.
Badger State Industries works with Redgranite inmates to help them refurbish products for the store.
“Our programs are generally developed to teach certain skills and hopefully develop a work ethic for the inmates,” said Phil Kussman, industries superintendent at Badger State Industries. “Then when they are released they have some skills and training to help make their re-entry into society successful.”
Julie Schulz, IndependenceFirst Mobility Store program director, said that the refurbishing work benefits both people with disabilities and inmates.
“Inmates learn hard skills, which are the mechanical aspects of repairing equipment, as well as soft skills like relating to co-workers, relating to a supervisor and showing up on time,” Schultz said.
The store offers an interest-free payment plan to assist customers who are on tight budgets.
“We require an initial down payment and then monthly payments,” Vigil said. “That way (customers) don’t have to prepay for the whole thing before they get it because we know they need the equipment right away.”