Quality Connections is a unique non-profit in Flagstaff that uses a commercial office supply business (QCoffice) to provide its clients with work experience to finance its programs that help individuals with disabilities become independent, productive members of our community.
We talked recently with co-founder Armando Bernasconi about the roots of the organization, competing in the commercial realm, and how reams of paper, recycled cartridges, and school supplies are funding their mission.
What inspired you to start Quality Connections and QCoffice?
Melissa and I had been working in the disability employment field in Flagstaff since the early 1990’s helping people with disabilities obtain and maintain jobs. In 1999, we moved downtown with my college roommate, Ben Sutcliffe. Ben had cerebral palsy – he was completely capable mentally, but had no control of his limbs and was not able to talk, walk or care for himself. He required total assistance with his physical needs – toileting, bathing, and feeding.
We wanted to help give Ben access to the same life experiences that we got to enjoy. We took him everywhere: traveling, to concerts, downtown for drinks – just doing things that many young people in their 20s do. We traveled all over the country to places like New Orleans, Pittsburg, Colorado, Mexico, Nevada, up and down the California coast. Ben became part of our family.
Ben wanted two things in life more than anything: a girlfriend and a job. He often said he didn’t want to be a “leech on society” – those were his words. He wanted to be self-sufficient and pay his fair share of taxes. This became our mission. Melissa and I traveled the country touring and researching Social Enterprise programs that provided work to people with the most profound disabilities. We toured some incredible programs, but none provided work opportunities for people with disabilities like Ben’s. Work for Ben had to be completely technology based as he had no physical capabilities. E-commerce was clearly the solution.
After forming Quality Connections, we developed a website specifically for Ben and hired him as our webmaster. His job was to upload products onto the website using his communication device. Several years later, Ben was married to the love of his life. Armando was his Best Man.
We were happy to be able to help Ben achieve his biggest life goals. Sadly, Ben passed away in June 2014, but his legacy lives on through QCoffice, which now is able to help many others pursue their employment dreams.
Tell us more about Quality Connections and your services.
Quality Connections was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in October of 1999 on our dining room table! We started by providing Vocational Counseling to people with disabilities referred by the State. This was the beginning of our Employment Services program.
In 2002 we received a grant from the State of Arizona to develop a remanufacturing program for toner cartridges and our QCtoner brand of remanufactured laser toner cartridges was born. The program was well received by the Flagstaff business community, who quickly started asking for more. We added thousands of business products to our catalog and that was the beginning of QCoffice.org. This resulted in more work for Ben and other workers with disabilities in Flagstaff.
In the mid-2000s, the need for services for people with disabilities in Flagstaff was so great that the State asked us to develop Residential and Day Program services. Lacking experience with these types of programs, we sought out leaders who shared our values and vision. We were not interested in providing the same old run of the mill programs currently available. We envisioned programs that were cutting-edge and result oriented, focusing completely on the needs of the people we serve rather than trying to fit those people into predetermined molds.
Our Residential Program and Montessori-based Adult Day Program were developed by the talented and dedicated leaders we have been fortunate enough to attract. Our department heads are trailblazers in their fields as they have been developing our innovative programs for close to a decade. Our service programs are wildly successful in that they reduce unwanted behaviors and increase appropriate behaviors. This helps the people we serve successfully prepare themselves for community integration through employment.
Flagstaff’s new Minimum Wage has created a new barrier to community employment, hindering our ability to successfully place our workers in community employment. This makes our QCoffice program all the more important. We are counting on Flagstaff’s support to assure that employment and services are available to our most vulnerable by simply sourcing their business supplies from QCoffice.org.
How many employees do you have?
QCoffice employs about 50 people with disabilities statewide. Approximately 30 have developmental disabilities, and the remainder have various other disabilities. Quality Connections has over 120 permanent employees.
Do all profits from QC Office go back into the residential and workforce programs?
100% of sales support QCoffice’s operation and our Mission of employment for our disabled employees. With the coming minimum wage crisis, we hope the Flagstaff community will help support our Service Programs (Residential, Day Program and Employment Services) through the purchase of all their business supply needs.
Talk about the effect QC Office has on your employees.
We provide real-world employment experience for people who have significant barriers to employment. We are driven to help people with disabilities overcome barriers in order to maintain long-lasting stable employment. This results in increased self-esteem, a sense of identity and the opportunity to contribute and be a productive member of our community. Employment at QCoffice reduces people’s dependence on public assistance and burden on society or taxpayers. In short, we help people transform from tax consumers into taxpayers. When that happens, the whole community benefits.
Identity and inclusion are critical needs for all of us. People naturally identify themselves with the work they do or the organization they work for – I’m a Receptionist at Quality Connections, or I’m a Delivery Driver at QCoffice, or a Customer Service Representative or Janitor. Ben was so proud to tell people he was a Webmaster. When someone is unemployed, they lack this sense of identity and connection to a community. The work we do at Quality Connections gives our employees that identity and offers that sense of belonging to a community.
How do you compete with other commercial entities; are your customers aware of your larger mission?
QCoffice’s Mission is to bring value to our customers by reimagining ecommerce in ways that multiply our social impact and help to build a more fulfilling world for people with disabilities and the community. We believe that the power of business can and should be used to strengthen communities and empower people with employment barriers.
When posed the question, “Would you rather make the richest man in the world richer, or source your supplies from a local company who shares your values and employs people who would otherwise be unemployed?” The answer 100% of the time is clear. Our customers really understand the value QCoffice provides – not just for their business but also for the greater community. Our products, pricing, and service are competitive, and our customers understand that buying from us is the right thing to do. They understand we are here in service of the community, not to maximize profits at their expense.
QCoffice doesn’t just serve small businesses either. The State of Arizona, Coconino County, City of Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University and other large companies and institutions rely on QCoffice for their supplies.
QCoffice now employs 50 people with disabilities. We offer jobs in customer service, sales, marketing, shipping, receiving, bookkeeping, IT, light assembly, testing, packaging and delivery. We have several delivery crews across the state that consist of two workers with disabilities and a Job Coach who supports them in their work. When our customers get their products delivered by our amazing crews, they get to see for themselves the impact their orders have on our workers. That’s when our customers really understand the value we provide.
By supporting this mission-driven business, our customers get the quality supplies they need at competitive prices and give back more to our community in immeasurable ways. It’s a great model and it works!
You can check out the work done by Quality Connections at https://qualityconnections.org/.