Monday, September 01, 2008

Lighthouse program help the visually impaired

"Can't" perhaps becomes the biggest hurdle for blind people.

For a quarter of a century now, the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind has been the beacon for some 20,000 people to find a path out of darkness.

"Blindness is the No. 1 fear that people face," Sylvia Stinson Perez, the nonprofit agency's newly named executive director, observed. She brings a passion to the job since she is legally blind because of a congenital eye condition.

Perez shares an eagerness with the Lighthouse staff of 14 to build on successes. They also face some stiff challenges - a decrease in state funds, a wrecked van and high gasoline prices.

"It takes a lot more energy to be blind, it really does," Perez said. "If you work on developing those skills, you can be just as competent as anyone else."

Many adaptive sports are proof of that. Go-Ball, a soccer spinoff, is a "blast." Beep Baseball uses a ball with an embed device that make a beeping noise to help visually impaired batters. Blind skiing and judo are among many other choices.

But when clients first arrive at Lighthouse, according to Perez, they are focused on the "can'ts" - can't cook, can't read, can't write checks, can't take medications independently.

"It takes a lot of problem solving" and ingenuity, Perez said. Simple steps include a rubber band to indicate evening medications. There are classes that teach people how to mark stoves and other kitchen appliances so they can be used by people with limited or no sight.

Soon the light bulb goes off over the heads of clients that, yes, they can still do many things.
"It's a caring community," Perez said. It's been that way since 1983 when some 150 people showed up at a town hall meeting about establishing a center for the blind.

Lighthouse struggled in the early years, Ron Thornton, a West Pasco attorney, recalled. The first executive director, Chuck Jackson, talked his buddy Thornton into serving on the board of directors. Little did Thornton know he would hold that post for 25 years.

Roxann Mayros and Don Griffin also held the executive director's post before Perez.
These days the Lighthouse aides people in Pasco and Hernando counties.

Totally blind, Lighthouse staffer Priscilla Nadzeika has seen many changes. The fledgling agency launched in a New Port Richey house on Virginia Avenue a church had donated. Then the agency moved to Main Street for a time.

Lighthouse landed in the former home of the Hudson Library, on Old Dixie Highway. But the severe March 1993 storm flooded the county-owned building and nearly wiped out the Lighthouse.

In October 1996, Lighthouse finally settled into its current location in the county-owned facility at 8610 Galen Wilson Blvd., Port Richey, just north of Ridge Road.

Since Lighthouse formed in 1983, the technology available now for the blind is like "night and day," Perez said.

Some wristwatches announce the time, for instance, although Perez herself prefers a flip-top, tactile watch that lets her feel Braille codes for the time of day.

Cell phones can announce which buttons blind people are pushing. In fact, a whole host of clocks, scales, microwave ovens and other devices can get almost downright chatty thanks to computer chips.

Computers come with all types of scanners, overhead projectors and other adapters for the blind. Programs can read back what's on the screen.

As the area population grows older, Lighthouse services will be needed more than ever, Perez said. Already some 15 percent of Pasco residents over the age of 70 are blind or have impaired vision.

No cure exists for macular degeneration of the retina, an age-related main cause of blindness along with diabetic retinopathy.

In a medical class long ago, Perez was struck by the delicate structure of the eye. The smallest blood vessels are in the eyes. The retina is so thin that it split when she barely touched it with her fingernail.

But Lighthouse clients learn blindness "doesn't have to be the end," Perez commented. The blind "can be your co-worker. They can be your friend."


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