Laurel Industries Manufactures Award-Winning Product
Each year hundreds of the popular recreational swings known as the AIR POGO are manufactured in a small center in Laurel, Mississippi and shipped to recreational companies and toy stores across the country. The employees assembling these “pogo swings” are not the average assembly line worker. They are all people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
The work center, officially named Laurel Industries, was contracted by Creative Play Enterprises Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., to manufacture the pogo swings. However, that wasn’t Brad Banta’s initial plan when he purchased AIR POGO from Hattiesburg residents Ted and Sarah Webb in 2009. In fact, when he made the trip to Mississippi to finalize the deal, Banta said he had every intention of loading up the equipment and taking everything back to California. Things changed when the Webbs gave Banta a tour of the manufacturing facility.
“I saw all of this they have going here and I didn’t see any way we could improve it in California,” Banta said during a recent visit to Laurel Industries. “We are happy to be a part of the operation here (at Laurel Industries). The product is getting produced in a positive way and they are getting it shipped to our customers on time. It’s a positive relationship all the way around.”
Banta pointed out that Laurel Industries is the only business contracted to make the original AIR POGO product. “This is it,” he said. “There is no other place in the world it is made.”
Sarah Webb, who was visiting Laurel Industries along with Banta and his wife, Kathleen, said she and her husband made the pogo swings in an office at their home for about two years before soliciting the help of ESS. An associate of her husband, who was familiar with the work done at ESS, suggested that he contact ESS to see if anyone would be interested in assembling the product. She said not only did ESS agree to assemble the pogo swings, but the Laurel Industries director at that time, along with his staff, developed a better way to assemble the product.
“We came up here and were actually blown away,” said Webb, who works as AIR POGO’s sales manager and is pleased Banta decided to continue to work with ESS. She said AIR POGO is her and her husband’s “baby” and they want to see it continue to grow.
Ted Webb got the idea of inventing a pogo swing following a family vacation. The Webbs had two young daughters (ages seven and eight) at the time and the father wanted to find something fun and entertaining for them to play with. He decided to combine the bungee jump and swing into one toy. The end result is what is now known as AIR POGO.
“We hung the AIR POGO from a tree in our yard and the girls loved it,” said Webb. “We didn’t dream the idea would find the success that it has today.”
Photo Caption: Shameika McMillian demonstrates how to add rope to an AIR POGO product. The AIR POGO, made exclusively by persons served by Ellisville State School at Laurel Industries, was awarded by the Parents’ Choice Foundation and Creative Child Magazine, both of which are well-respected evaluators of products and services for children.
Since their daughters enjoyed the pogo swing so much, the Webbs decided to let toy experts John and Maryalice Miner of Ocean Springs take a look at their invention. Miner thought the AIR POGO had great potential and advised the Webbs to find a national marketing representative. The Webbs found a marketing representative in New York and as the old cliché goes, the rest is history.
“We are not at all surprised by their success,” stated Maryalice Miner, who said she and her husband have been in the toy business for 27 years. “The AIR POGO is a great product.
“When they brought it down for us to look at and try out, we tied it to a tree in the front of the store and had our grandchildren try it out. Our customers came by and tried it out and loved it, too. We knew then and there that it was a great toy with a great future.”
Both Webb and Banta said the assembly and shipping team at ESS plays an important role in the product’s success. “They are the ones who keep everything going and get the product out to the customers,” said Banta. “Everything has gone smoothly since the five years I have been working with them. I don’t recall anything ever going wrong and I attribute that to the wonderful staff and workers we have here.”
He stated that ESS Active Treatment Technician Damita Page and other staffers do an outstanding job making sure the production and shipping operation is running smoothly.
“We (the California office) market and sell the product,” explained Banta. “Sarah (Webb) is the sales manager and Damita is the one we send the orders to.”
Banta said perhaps about 3,000 or more of the products are distributed each year. The majority of AIR POGOs are sold in the South or East where they have plenty of trees.
Webb said when she and her husband sold the company to Banta, she hoped he would continue the partnership with ESS. When he announced he had decided to continue the partnership, Webb said she was simply overjoyed.
Photo Caption: Pictured from left to right: Kathleen Banta (wife of owner); Karen
Jones, Laurel Industries site director; Brad Banta, owner of Creative Play Enterprises; Sarah Webb, marketing manager; and Damita Page, ESS active treatment technician, stand with a finished product.
“This is a win-win partnership for everybody involved,” explained Banta. “The individuals here get the training they need and, of course, they get a job."
“It’s a win for us because we get the product to our customers without mistakes. Customers get the product sent to them in a timely manner. I find all of these things positive.”
Kathleen Banta, who was visiting Laurel Industries for the first time, agrees. Her husband had talked about the place so much she thought she had a clear picture of what it was like.
“It’s nothing like being here and seeing things with your own eyes,” she said. “I think this place is so important and very valuable. It provides opportunity for and makes a difference in the lives of people who are underrepresented.”
Karen Jones, Laurel Industries site director, said most businesses have a blind spot when it comes to training and hiring people with physical and intellectual disabilities that comes from misunderstandings and misconceptions about those with disabilities.
“We have a group of hard working and dedicated people,” said Jones. “It gives you pride and fulfillment to see the work they do and to know you are doing something to make a difference.”