Montana Made: Nonprofit makes backpacks and jobs one stitch at a time
By Mikenzie Frost - MTN News
The U.S. Forest Service employs hundreds of people nationwide. Some of those employees are given a backpack, briefcase or gear pack.
A Montana manufacturing plant not only makes those items, but also provides a job for people with disabilities one stitch at a time.
“Every team member has put some hand or some something into making this bag,” said Pam Moore, Benchmark Plant Manager.
Helena Industries provides services for people with disabilities, and at their Benchmark Manufacturing facility, backpacks are made for the U.S. Forest Service firefighters and other government agencies.
“To date, we have made 975,” said Moore.
Helena Industries has a contract to make 3,420 backpacks. Plus, Moore said, “We have another contract of another 375.”
Over the years, 15,900 packs have been made by these workers, but it’s not easy.
“This takes us, a good week and a half per bag,” Moore noted.
The pack is large and takes a large team effort to complete, with 105 job tasks necessary to turn a pile of fabric into an essential tool for firefighters.
“There is such a wide variety; everybody is able to help in some respect,” Moore said. “105 is a lot of jobs.”
Two workers at Benchmark, Kathleen and Melanie, are tasked with putting tags on the zippers.
While repetitive, Melanie enjoys the work. “I like to use my fingers,” she said.
Even though each bag requires seven tags, Melanie said she doesn’t get tired of the job.
“Nope, (it’s) exciting!”
Once the ladies finish with the tags, the next person takes over until the pack is complete.
Since 1980, Helena Industries has been making items for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’ve made backpacks, we’ve made briefcases and we’ve made gear packs,” said Retired Vice President of Manufacturing Bill Roberts.
While the design of the product may have evolved, the process has not and neither has the ultimate goal.
“We’re still looking for high quality work for people with disabilities,” Roberts said.
Zipper after zipper and stitch after stitch, the hard work is rewarding for everyone in the shop.
“When you see the smile on their face when they accomplish something that is a little difficult for them, it’s all worth it,” Moore said.
From Helena, the packs are shipped to California where they are distributed across the entire country.
For more details about what other services Helena Industries provides, click here.