At age 17, Kenny Buffington took a turn for the worse in a car accident that claimed his eyesight and short-term memory. He was left legally blind when he emerged from a four-month-long coma.
Despite his inabilities, Buffington, 32, has made the most of his abilities with the help of Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia, a nonprofit agency that has kept him in a job since he was 18.
He’s one of about 8,000 physically or mentally disabled people the agency has trained and placed in a job during its 40 years in Gainesville, Executive Director Paula Phillips said.
"I thank God for my life and for RING. Without RING, there wouldn’t be hope," Buffington said.
The agency celebrated its 40th anniversary Friday at a breakfast featuring speaker U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville.
In 1969, the Gainesville Jaycees initiated the program at the old E.E. Butler High School building. Since 1972, the program has operated from a warehouse on Athens Street.
Buffington was at the breakfast to show his gratitude to RING board members and leaders.
The jobs RING helped him find include work some might find menial, such as packaging gum for Wrigley or putting metal parts together for bathtubs. But Buffington said the work has meant the world to him, his wife and their two children. The job has afforded him respect from his employers and a sense of purpose, he said.
"You get to be a part of the community instead of nothing," he said. "RING has helped me more than anything. If it wasn’t for RING, I’d be nothing. I’d be at home like a vegetable."
Deal, whose wife, Sandra, served on RING’s board in the 1980s, said he and other legislators support the program and the 16 others like it across the state for many reasons. Not only do the agencies find meaningful work for the more than 1.2 million disabled Georgians, but employing the disabled helps them to contribute to the community instead of depending on it.
"They help individuals who would otherwise be supported by a public assistance program," Deal said. "It relieves the burden on taxpayers by having them employed."
Getting out and working also appeals to the basic elements of every human being, he said.
Deal said he’s concerned that only 35 percent of the nation’s disabled are employed, and they are facing layoffs at a higher rate than the average worker. He said he encourages state and federal governments to contract out work to nonprofit agencies like RING when appropriate.
AbilityOne Program, a federal agency that secures employment for the disabled through 600 nonprofit organizations, recognized Deal on Friday for his consistent support in Congress. Wayne McMillan is president and CEO of Bobby Dodd Institute, an Atlanta employment agency for the disabled, and presented Deal with the honor.
With the nation’s unemployment rate reaching 9.8 percent, McMillan said it is becoming increasingly frustrating for disabled Georgians standing in the unemployment line at the Department of Labor.
"Typically our (disabled) folks are the first to be laid off in a recession," he said. "It’s hard for them to even get an interview. (Employers) don’t look at their assets; they look at what they can’t do."