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Success without sight: Provo man runs woodworking business

June 8, 2018
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ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 9-10 - In this May 24, 2018 photo, Nick Rios whittles down two blocks of wood into rounded cylindrical shapes to be used used for one of his pens as he works at his workshop at Provo Central Storage in Provo, Utah. Rios' products incorporate several different kinds of woods, such as: redwood, oak, walnut, cedar, oak and poplar. (Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald via AP)

PROVO, Utah (AP) — “Five.six.seven,” counts Nick Rios as he finishes waiting for the blade of his table saw to stop spinning. Packed tightly among various woods, tools and finished products in his storage-unit workshop at Provo Central Storage, Rios carefully removes the wood from the saw and continues on to the next step of creating a pen.

The Provo resident creates finely-crafted pens, cutting boards, and pen boxes from wood to sell to customers. However, Rios himself has never actually seen his own handiwork.

He is legally blind.

Rios has a genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. The incurable disease gradually degrades sight, from increasing tunnel vision to varying degrees of blindness. In the U.S. and Europe, it affects roughly 1 in 3,500 people and is the most common inherited disease of the retina, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Nick R. Rios was born in 1965 in Bellavista, Callao, Peru. For postsecondary education, he studied computer science at IDAT Institute in Lima, and received a master’s degree in the same field at University of Cesar Vallejo, located in Trujillo. After earning his degrees, he spent 15 years analyzing and organizing Peruvian companies of various sizes and also developing and implementing software to fit each company’s needs. He additionally installed and maintained computers, networks, printers and other hardware.

In 2004, Rios came to America seeking to further his professional opportunities. He continued his career path, but in 2007, he began having vision problems. He visited several eye specialists and was eventually diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

He was told that within 10 years, he would be completely blind. In 2008, his vision continued to dramatically degrade and he fell into a deep depression.

“I lost nine years of my life,” said Rios in English, his second language. “I was very depressed, very angry.”

Years went by as Rios came to terms with life without useable sight. In 2016, divorced for a second time and living alone, he began to meditate about his life. Rios soon after decided “no more,” to his depression. In May 2017, he entered a program at the Utah State Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Salt Lake City.

“I found a new family in the blind center,” said Rios.

The center offers various courses, including those that teach Braille, how to use a blind cane, cook, use computers and create products in the wood shop. It also offers courses in practical skills, such as how to get around and travel without sight. Those enrolled live in apartments at the center for six to nine months.

Besides his deepening blindness, Rios had another difficulty to overcome.

“My problem inside the blind center is that all the teachers speak English,” said Rios. Though his native language is Spanish, he now speaks rudimentary English. “For me it’s very hard,” he said.

However, he understands English better than he can speak it. When teachers would explain how to do things, Rios would reply with, “I’m sorry, no repeat, but I understand,” he recalled with a small laugh.

During his time at the center, Rios met his sighted girlfriend, Susana Fragoso. A blind mutual friend introduced them at a Latin night and banquet during a local convention for the blind. Susana, who lives in Salt Lake City, visits Nick periodically during the week to see him and more on the weekends to also help out with the business. The two have now been together for over a year.

Despite his difficulties with English, Rios felt at home at the center and its educators motivated him and supported his success. It was at the center that he learned how to make the pens and cutting boards he now produces. Rios graduated in December of last year after six months at the center

Fragoso explained that after Rios graduated from the blind center, they suggested that he go to workforce services and look for jobs. “But he had been doing that for eight years and applying to different jobs,” she explained. “The chances of getting hired when you’re blind are much slimmer.”

So, Rios teamed up with Fragoso to start a business of their own, and in January of this year, Blind Gorilla Business was born.

The moniker comes from a large gorilla mask wearing sunglasses that Rios keeps in the living room of his home. Several photos of Rios’ two grown daughters from a previous marriage, and their own families, also hang in the living room. “Those are my babies,” he said gesturing to the photos, “And that’s our baby,” he said beside his girlfriend, gesturing to the gorilla mask with a shared laugh.

Rios researched what tools he’d need with the help of his girlfriend and received a financing plan from the Home Depot. Shortly thereafter, he purchased his first machines to begin his business using funds he had saved from the federal government’s Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance programs. But the business needed a place to create the products, and with the help of Rios’ girlfriend, they found a location in a unit at Provo Central Storage.

“He loves computer technology and could keep trying to do something with that, but he could never see the end result of it,” explained Fragoso. “With wood, he can touch it, feel how it is, even smell it.”

In the first six months of business, Rios has been focusing on creating quantities of his products to sell. A few individuals have approached him to purchase his products, but his handiwork actually debuted to the public for purchase this past Saturday at the Provo Farmers Market held at Pioneer Park.

Despite being skilled with his hands, Rios cannot see the end results of his handiwork. That’s where Fragoso’s primary role lies: quality control. She also strives to keep Rios motivated, but she finds his positive attitude motivating and inspiring her just as much.

“He’s so creative, and he doesn’t waste anything,” said Fragoso.

Even sawdust.

Rios collects the sawdust that accumulates from his woodworking and is now repurposing it with glue and a rolling pin to make molds of relief artwork from Peruvian culture to paint and sell. He’s also trying to use the sawdust substance to make boxes to store small tools — and may later use the substance to roll into beads.

“He understands that once he gets the business going, he’ll lose the money from Social Security,” said Fragoso. “But he wants to be self-sufficient, he doesn’t want to depend on government funds. He wants to make his own money and to get ahead. Not so much to ‘live grand,’ but so that we can make other things and help people.”

Though aware of the massive involvement and planning small businesses can require, Rios hopes that far into the future he can expand his Blind Gorilla Business to provide employment opportunities for other blind people.

“He wants to take advantage of this phase of his life to serve,” explained Fragoso. “He also wants to motivate other people, to be an example, to show that even though he’s blind, he can do something.”


Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldextra.com

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