Society for the Blind Receives $40K from AT&T

Society for the Blind receives check from AT&T

Society for the Blind announced today it has received $40,000 from AT&T to fund teaching programs for adults and seniors living with vision loss.

“Society for the Blind is honored to receive this support from AT&T,” said Shari Roeseler, executive director, Society for the Blind. “Thanks to AT&T’s generosity, people who are living with low vision and blindness will be able to learn the skills and access the tools and technology that will help them live independently and achieve their work and personal goals.”

Society for the Blind’s classes focus on four core skills: orientation and mobility, Braille, adaptive technology and independent living skills. Students learn how to travel safely, efficiently and independently inside their home and in public. They learn how to use alternative techniques and tools to navigate day-to-day tasks such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, home maintenance, organization, personal finance, and using Braille to read, write and access technology. Students are trained in all aspects of computer use appropriate to their interests and skill levels, including email, Internet access, completing online forms, shopping and banking online, and creating documents.

“AT&T is committed to advancing education and strengthening the communities in which we live and work,” said Tim Ray, regional vice president of external affairs, AT&T. “AT&T is proud to support the educational programs of Society for the Blind as they are a key resource for blindness education and low vision services throughout the Sacramento region.”

For 60 years, Society for the Blind has created innovative ways to empower individuals living with low vision or blindness to discover, develop and achieve their full potential. Society for the Blind has grown from a dedicated group of volunteers that included the Lions Clubs of America to a nationally recognized agency and the only rehabilitative teaching center for a 26-county region of northern California. The nonprofit provides low-vision eye care, life and job skills training, mentorship, and access to tools to maintain independence for 6,000 youth, adults and seniors experiencing vision loss. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.societyfortheblind.org.

Society for the Blind Expands Low-Vision Clinic

Society for the Blind has expanded its low-vision clinic services in Sacramento to include vision rehabilitation and pediatric eye care, including an occupational therapist and a second office in Roseville.

“We believe in empowering people with vision challenges to live life to the fullest,” said Shari Roeseler, executive director, Society for the Blind. “We know kids are quick to adapt, so if we can reach them when they’re young, we can empower them with the tools needed to do anything they want to do in life.”

Expanded pediatric services at the Sacramento nonprofit also incorporate Braille classes for children and monthly support groups for parents that include child care for both low-vision and sighted children in the family. The purpose of the groups is to give parents the chance to sit down and share experiences and solutions. One of Society for the Blind’s partners, pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Mary O’Hara with UC Davis Eye Center, remembers the crushed look on parents’ faces when she would refer their children with vision challenges to a clinic in Berkeley. Many did not have the means to travel there from the Sacramento area.

“Society for the Blind has been a wonderful resource,” O’Hara said. “Up until 3 years of age, children with low vision can receive services through the state. Now we have a local facility where we can refer families of children ages 3 and up. Families are such an important part of treatment and support for children with low vision. If parents feel empowered, they will be better at helping a child feel empowered.”

The clinic expansion took place when Society for the Blind acquired the practice of a retiring ophthalmologist this year. Prior to the expansion, the clinic provided low-vision evaluation for adults, evaluating the person’s current functional vision and prescribing magnification aids. Society for the Blind’s managing optometrist Dr. Caitlin Walsh, OD, had prior experience with pediatrics, and when occupational therapist Toni Boom was hired, the clinic was able to expand.

“Working at Society for the Blind is ideal as an optometrist providing care for the visually impaired,” Walsh said. “Individuals often benefit from services other than glasses and magnifiers, and we offer comprehensive services in one location. I love that I can call upstairs and arrange mobility training, computer classes, Braille instruction and more for my patients. As a team, we help clients use their remaining vision effectively and learn non-visual techniques for daily living. This will empower many kids and adults for their future.”

Society for the Blind will host an open house for the expanded clinic on Sept. 26 as part of its yearlong 60th anniversary celebration. For more information, call (916) 452-8271.

For 60 years, Society for the Blind has created innovative ways to empower individuals living with low vision or blindness to discover, develop and achieve their full potential. Society for the Blind has grown from a dedicated group of volunteers that included the Lions Clubs of America to a nationally recognized agency and the only rehabilitative teaching center for a 26-county region of northern California. The nonprofit provides low-vision eye care, life and job skills training, mentorship, and access to tools to maintain independence for 6,000 youth, adults and seniors experiencing vision loss. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.societyfortheblind.org.

 

Society for the Blind: Meet Debra Celiz

With a heavy heart, Debra Celiz of Curtis Park decided not to go to her high school reunion several years ago when she started losing her vision.

“I wanted to go and reconnect with friends because I knew I’d be coming back to the area, but I was so self-conscious,” she said. “I was terrified of falling and making a fool of myself or not recognizing anyone. I pictured myself sitting in a corner in the dark because people would feel sorry for me.”

She responded no and began planning her move from San Francisco to Curtis Park as she worked to find ways to cope with her vision change. Doctors had discovered she had a rare form of Retinitis Pigmentosis (RP) called Bietti’s. She gradually began to lose her vision – she had trouble seeing her computer at UCSF Medical Center where she managed 12 physicians and 45 staff. She could not drive at night, had some serious falls and even endured a traumatic brain injury from walking into scaffolding. That is when depression started to sink in, and she feared the only satisfaction she would have from life was reliving her memories.

Once she moved to Curtis Park, she went directly to Society for the Blind. She was fortunate to know about the organization because her family lived in the area and she would pass by the office. Yet she had no idea how Society for the Blind’s Senior IMPACT Project would change her perspective on her vision – and on her life.

During the weeklong Senior IMPACT Project retreat, Debra learned basic living skills such as how to cook, navigate streets using a white cane, use public transportation, shop and organize money in her wallet, and use talking gadgets like a labeler.

“I must say, that retreat changed my life,” Debra said. “It opened the doors to new possibilities when I saw how the instructors lived their lives so independently despite vision challenges. They gave me a lot of support and I started to develop my confidence and become hopeful for my future.”

A key moment for Debra was when she purchased a pair of high-heeled shoes to wear to her latest high school reunion this past October.

“I had developed some mobility skills with my cane, and I was determined to go,” she said. “I walked in with my cane and high heels and was greeted so warmly by everyone there. I danced and had a fantastic time, and I reconnected with people I had not seen in more than 40 years.”

At one point, someone at the reunion commented that her vision loss was a tragedy, and Debra admits to giggling and explaining that vision loss is a challenge and inconvenience, but definitely not a tragedy.

Debra and her high school friends have continued to get together regularly since the reunion, often gathering for lunch or parties. One night they even went out to clubs and laughed and reminisced the whole time. She has spent a significant amount of time and energy restoring her Frank “Squeaky” Williams home and beginning advanced classes at Society for the Blind so she can work again as a health care administrator. She also volunteers at Society for the Blind as a mentor in the Senior IMPACT Project and at community outreach events.

“I feel like I have back everything I had lost after starting to lose my vision,” she said. “All those feelings of despair, isolation and fear are gone. Society for the Blind gave that to me – they’re like my family. I’m exhausted now, but it’s fantastic because it means I have a full, rich life.”

 

 

 

Society for the Blind: Meet Paul Gray

Paul Gray started losing his vision at age 16, but that didn’t stop him from being named Junior Prom King. In fact, the born athlete remembers his whole football team getting into trouble together at the hospital as he was dealing with his diagnosis. He also remembers being the “fun blind guy at the party,” and his friends playing good-natured pranks on him.

“My mom and dad are tough folks and taught me I had to get over it,” Paul said. “I could dwell on it and waste life or I could learn to move on and figure it out. So I kept my sense of humor and my friends kept taking me to parties. I continued to play football, baseball and basketball as long as I could.”

Paul was born with a genetic disease called Leber hereditary optic neuropathy that normally begins affecting men’s central vision when they are in their 40s and 50s. Women carry the gene, but only men experience the vision loss and cannot pass on the gene. Doctors believe Paul began losing his vision at such a young age because he underwent chemotherapy for a year and a half at age 11 to beat cancer and that stress triggered the disease to kick in.

“We had no idea this gene was in our family,” Paul said. “Now we know all of my brothers have it, but they can still see.”

Paul remembers playing basketball one day as a junior in high school and he couldn’t see a player’s jersey number. The next week he couldn’t see the scoreboard. The following week, he started missing the ball. He thought it was wind or sweat in his eye – or a football injury. Many tests later, Paul realized he would never be able to go to college on a sports scholarship as he had planned.

“At that point, I realized something I was passionate about had been taken from me, but I’m such a positive person that I believed it would get fixed eventually,” Paul said. “My family and friends really helped me with that transition. I still worried about all of the things I had taken for granted, though, like being able to play catch with my son and support a family.”

But he found a way to pour his passion into athleticism – he moved to San Diego and became a certified personal trainer, building a successful business doing boot camps on the beach. Eventually he made his way to Oregon where he met his wife and then they moved back to Sacramento.

He knew building a personal training business would be much more difficult in the Sacramento area than in San Diego, but he was determined to find a career that he was passionate about. So he began taking classes at Society for the Blind, and his instructors noticed he had a talent for working with technology and computers. He volunteered for seven months and one day walked into the office and asked what he would have to do to work for Society for the Blind.

Paul is now Coordinator for Society for the Blind’s Access News program, which provides information, news, entertainment and reading material to the blind through the telephone. People who are blind can call up and listen to recorded articles, stories or information through their telephone anytime, any day of the week. Volunteers come into Society for the Blind’s recording booths to record themselves reading newspapers, grocery ads, magazines and more, and callers can choose from a menu of options.

“I like seeing people able to do things they couldn’t do before,” Paul said. “Technology is so great right now for blind people. When I first started losing my sight, they had these horrible tapes. Now we have iPhones that talk and can download books, and we have mobile GPS systems for walking directions. There’s a lot out there to help people have new experiences – and to give them hope that they can do anything.”

When he isn’t coordinating the Access News program, Paul teaches mobility skills to people who come to Society for the Blind – walking three to four miles a day. He also teaches computer training and is in school at the Assistive Technology Institute, where he will graduate in August.

“People change and things happen, and you can either make it a good thing or a bad thing,” Paul said. “I definitely have a very happy life. I think I was meant to be blind to encourage and help other blind people. Just because you lose your vision doesn’t mean you stop living your life. There is so much blind people can do, it’s incredible. You just have to do it another way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Society for the Blind: Meet Aser Tolentino

Aser Tolentino

Aser Tolentino just collected his first ever paycheck. After years of law school and volunteer legal positions, he thought his first paycheck would be from a district attorney’s office, but when his vision became so bad he couldn’t read the computer, the Natomas resident knew it would be awhile before he would receive paid employment.

Though Aser was born legally blind due to glaucoma and congenital eye conditions, he still had some vision through law school and played a lot of video games as a kid.

“It was fun while it lasted,” he joked. “After all, they’re never going to make another Super Nintendo.”

Through his teen years and undergraduate career at UC Davis, he could see well enough to walk around campus and read large print font. He experienced a gradual decline through law school and lost his right eye in the middle of his worst semester in fall 2009. He was volunteering for the Yolo County district attorney’s office and his eye started hurting terribly. It would be three weeks before they could remove the eye and relieve the pain.

“I still got a 4.0 that semester,” Aser said laughing. “When I came back, a lot of my friends gave me notes from classes I had missed and told me about upcoming study sessions. We’d always been really good about helping each other with group study, but they really picked me up and carried me that last bit. That actually ended up being the high point of my academic career.”

After he graduated from UC Davis Law School in the top 5 percent of his class, passed the bar exam and had been volunteering with the deputy district attorney’s office in Placer County for a year, he walked into work one day and realized he couldn’t read his computer. That started a year of biweekly doctor’s visits to discover what was going wrong. In the span of a year, Aser had cataract surgery and two corneal transplants, but nothing was working.

“I cried like a baby a few times when I started losing my vision,” he said. “I was intellectually prepared for my vision to get worse, but not emotionally. It was a shock.”

Aser had already been concerned about what life after law school would be like. He knew there were quite a few blind prosecutors, but most became blind after practicing for many years. Very few entered the field with visual impairments, and those that did, did not live in the area. As his vision was getting worse, he also realized he did not have solid answers to interview questions about how he would get around his visual impairment.

“To be honest, you’ve got a guy who’s top 5 percent of his law school who can’t see and one who can, you might be more inclined to pick the one that can see,” Aser said.

He began to isolate himself, spending time online. In 2013, he read 150 books. When he couldn’t take the isolation anymore, he began making friends online through role-playing games and met his girlfriend on Twitter.

He also started searching for jobs and started with training. Fortunately, he had received some adaptive aids from Society for the Blind as a teen, so he knew right where to go. In July 2014, he began mobility training, and in October, he began taking Society for the Blind’s assistive technology classes – an area in which he had always been interested. Sometimes he would assist the instructor by helping another student. When his course was completed, Aser was asked to become a volunteer teaching assistant. In April 2015, he was hired as an Assistive Technology Instructor at Society for the Blind.

“If there’s one thing you learn as a lawyer, it’s to think on your feet,” Aser said. “With assistive technology, things don’t always work the first, second or third time so you have to come at it from different angles and use novel solutions.”

Recently, Aser helped a woman find a specific book through the National Library Service’s Braille and Audio Reading Download program. He wondered why she wanted to read the book so badly and then learned it was because she was in the middle of the book when she lost her sight. She wanted to see how it ended.

“Making these services accessible to people who are blind goes beyond simple communication and access to information, although those are vitally important,” Aser said. “But they also provide the ability to live your life the way you want to. That’s what I find most appealing about this field.”

He says one day he may go back into the legal field, but if he does, it will be to work in disability advocacy, an area he studied for about 10 weeks in law school through an internship in Berkeley. He now feels equipped with the right assistive technology to compete in the field. For now, he’s happy to be collecting a paycheck doing something he loves that he knows makes a difference in people’s lives.

“I loved my job to death as a prosecutor, but there were some days I didn’t feel so good about society,” Aser said. “I don’t have to do that in this job. Helping people in this job, I get to go home really happy knowing I helped someone reach out and touch the world in a way that’s personally fulfilling.”

 

Society for the Blind: Meet the Sekoras

Lynda Sekora knew she was losing some of her vision, but the night she realized she couldn’t read her insulin pump anymore, the Orland resident sank into a deep depression.

“I cried all through dinner,” Lynda said. “I flat had a nervous breakdown and quit living. I spent my days watching stupid TV shows and would have welcomed death.”

Due to a lifetime of Type 1 diabetes, Lynda was blind in one eye and had macular degeneration and glaucoma in the other.

As her husband, Palmer, watched her sink further and further into anxiety and depression throughout 2012, he knew something had to be done. Lynda’s ophthalmologist in Chico did not know any place that could provide resources, so Palmer began digging through the phone book and newspapers. He wanted to do anything to help Lynda feel better – she had always been such an independent person. But he kept hitting dead ends.

Meanwhile, Lynda began seeing a therapist and taking anxiety medication, but nothing was helping her realize that life could go on.

Then Palmer came across Society for the Blind, and one of the instructors came to their house to visit with them. They described her as a “big ray of sunshine.” She told them about Society for the Blind’s Senior IMPACT Project that starts with a weeklong retreat. Though the retreat is geared toward the person losing vision, Palmer decided to participate alongside his wife so he would understand her experience.

During the training, Lynda and Palmer learned to cook using real knives and a real stove. They learned how to navigate streets using a white cane, shop and know which bills they were using, thread a needle, read braille and use talking gadgets like a labeler.

“We spent a week in that program with those wonderful positive people and their can-do spirit,” Lynda said. “They showed me that there is life after blindness – that I could do anything I wanted to, I just would have to do it a different way. When we left, we were walking on cloud nine.”

After the retreat, Lynda’s depression lifted. Her counselor was so impressed that she decided Lynda didn’t need her anymore. She also began weaning off the anxiety medication. Three years later, Lynda is proud that she can cook, tend her house, go out to dinner, go on trips and have lunch with her friends. Palmer manages her insulin pump, but Lynda makes all of the decisions regarding her care. They credit this transformation to the retreat at Society for the Blind.

“Everyone hits the lows,” Palmer said, “But it’s how you deal with it that determines whether you’re going to be happy. Many of the Society for the Blind instructors have a family and travel, and one even rock climbs! They teach you that the only limitations are those that you place upon yourself.”

Since the retreat, Lynda and Palmer have attended a few of Society for the Blind’s workshops for seniors including yoga, exercise and self-defense.

Because of their own experience searching desperately to find help, the Sekoras now volunteer at expos around the Sacramento area, distributing information and talking about Society for the Blind so that others will never have to experience the same isolation.

“For us, this experience was like wandering in the wilderness and finding your way out and realizing you’re not alone anymore,” Palmer said. “At Society for the Blind, it’s a person-to-person effort, and that’s what makes it so worthwhile and effective. When you can meet someone who has experienced what you’ve been through and is living his or her life fully, you say to yourself, I think I can do that too.”

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Ramona: Client and Volunteer with Society for the Blind

Ramona Herriford with Society for the Blind

Ramona Herriford, 63, can still hear her dad telling her, “If you can read, you can do anything.”

So when her retinas hemorrhaged independently of one another, she thought her life was over. The self-employed insurance agent owned her home in Rosemont and had bills to pay, but could no longer see or drive.

“I was really, really scared,” she said. “But Society for the Blind let me know that life doesn’t stop. And I needed to hear that.”

Ramona’s journey through visual challenges began 10 years ago when she woke up one morning and opened her left eye to discover a large black circle floating in it. Her retina had hemorrhaged – blood had seeped into the center of her eye, and it would take two months before they knew it wasn’t cancer or a tumor. They eventually did surgery on her eye, but then it formed a cataract. She was stuck with vision in only one eye.

“You probably would think I’d be a little more concerned about only having vision in one eye, but my attitude was that I still had one eye, so I didn’t stop,” Ramona said.

Ramona continued to drive and even drove up and down the coast until four years later, in 2009, when she woke up to find a large black spot in her right eye, which could not be operated on. She had to wait six months for the blood to dissipate, which permanently damaged her retina. Doctors removed the cataract in her left eye but it only exposed how damaged the retina tissue was and the severity of the distortion in her eye. Sometime she wishes they had not removed the cataract. With vision in both eyes distorted – she describes her vision like looking through a heat wave.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Ramona said. “Because I’m self-employed, I don’t get state disability, and I already had financial challenges.”

Fortunately, through her work in insurance, Ramona had a friend who served as an insurance agent for Society for the Blind. Her friend gave her phone numbers for social security, transportation help and the Department of Rehabilitation, which set her up with services from Society for the Blind.

“The Society helped me get over my anger and fear,” Ramona said. “I began rebuilding my business on public transportation, rain or shine. I knew I couldn’t stop.”

At Society for the Blind, Ramona was able to participate in several classes. She learned how to use a computer with assistive devices. She learned cane travel, especially how to decipher freeway noise from local sounds. She learned to listen before she even got to the intersection where she would cross a street.

Through Society’s Senior Impact Program for adults ages 55 and up, Ramona learned daily living skills: cooking, sewing and labeling using assistive devices like the Pen Friend that allowed her to record her own voice on the labels. Now she can make sure she grabs the right spices for cooking and the right shoes to go with a certain dress. She also was grateful for the group sessions where participants shared their techniques for dealing with vision challenges.

After that, Ramona signed up to become a Senior Impact Program mentor. She also volunteers in the Society for the Blind store that sells useful items and devices for people with low or no vision.

“When I would come to the classes or sit in the lobby, I saw so many people coming in angry,” she said. “I went through my own anger, and it was justified, but I wanted to encourage people about all that’s within them. They just have to make a choice to stick with it. It brings me joy to know I can still help people, even though I have low vision.”

Ramona is now a board member at Society for the Blind. She is a licensed insurance agent in the state of California through her business Herriford Insurance Services. She is a prayer chaplain at her church, Unity of Sacramento, and a volunteer with A Touch of Understanding – a nonprofit that teaches kids in schools about disabilities.

Thanks to her father’s encouragement years ago, Ramona even found a way to read. She uses software on her iPad that increases font size, and she has recording devices that read to her. She even reads books with a magnifying glass.

“I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Society for the Blind,” Ramona said. “I probably wouldn’t have my business. I’d probably be sitting at home balled up in the fetal position crying. It would have been very easy for me to just lock myself in the house. But I made a choice. I chose to not allow my vision impairment to control me – I chose to control it instead. Besides, I’ve always loved a challenge.”