Seeing Their Way
By Virginia Butterfield
“When I was a little kid in St. Mary’s Orphanage in Buffalo,” says Edna Mae Smith, an 85-year-old African-American who’s been blind all her life, “I learned just because I’m blind wasn’t a sign I couldn’t do things. I learned you’d better grow up. Nobody’s going to wait on you; nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. Sometimes a new blind person thinks they can’t do things, but we show them how. We say, ‘You got fingers, you got hands. Use them.’”
This is how the oldtimers—who have been coming to the Blind Recreation Center most of their lives—introduce newcomers to a philosophy of independence. Many who come are poor. Most come by bus—a feat in itself for those without sight. There are classes in painting, leather work, ceramics, music. But there are more important lessons to be learned: how to ride the bus, to cook, to cope. They learn to become members of society.
“It’s a place where wrecked lives get put back together,” says Lois Renfro, who’s been coming to the center for 15 years. “It’s something to do with your talents when your world comes crashing down.”
And while 70 percent of the members are 55 or older, some are remarkably young. Klaudia Birkner was a downhill skier before she suddenly lost her vision at 16. “I thought there wasn’t anything I could do anymore,” says Birkner, “that there was no hope for sports. Then I got a very inspiring opportunity to participate in the Blind Olympics through the Blind Recreation Center, and that’s when I realized there was no end to what I could do. To accomplish the impossible, we must attempt the impossible.”
And impossible it does seem to the sighted, to streak downhill at 70 miles an hour without the aid of vision. But with the help of a buddy who travels just ahead of her, Birkner is now a gold-medal winner in downhill skiing.
The little red center at the corner of Upas and Park Boulevard was built by the San Diego Lions Club in 1949 and renovated by the Lions in 1963. But by August of this year, when it was finally demolished, 49 years of hard use had taken its toll. The paint was peeling, and the ceilings were stained from roof leaks. There was no sprinkler system to guard against fire. Termites had invaded the structure, and the woodwork was fast disintegrating. The center was, in truth, in a state of near disgrace. The Lions Club and the board of directors decided it was time for a new building.
Great things had been happening at the center for almost half a century. Executive director Wendy Blair estimates that approximately 4,000 people a year found their way to its doors.
Until recently, the board of directors didn’t ask for financial help. They lived within their budget on the interest from an original endowment—and with continual help from the Lions, Helen Keller’s “Knights of the Blind,” who come so often to the aid of those in trouble. The center has been run for the blind and largely by the blind, who make up the majority of the board. All decisions concerning activities and spending are voted on by the visually impaired themselves. (The president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and four other board members are visually impaired.) The center has enjoyed no government support. The directors didn’t ask for it; didn’t want it.
But with the advent of plans for a new, three-story building, help was needed. Thus, the birth of the Share A Vision Foundation, a group specifically created to raise money for a new building. Blair’s mandate was to raise $2 million for construction. She is now within $200,000 of that goal.
When completed, the three-story building (designed by husband-and-wife architectural team Roesling/Nakamura) will house craft areas, meeting space, storage for art and sports equipment, an overnight room with showers for visiting kids, a vision clinic, a Braille transcription center, even a stage with lighting and sound for dramatic presentations (Blair will teach a drama class there).
BUT AT THE MOMENT, all that is visible to the passerby is a giant hole in the ground. Three earthmovers scoop dirt back and forth to level a plot surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Builder Cory Hunt stands at the top of a mound of earth, viewing the labor of a crew of volunteer hard-hat workers.
“He came by and asked what our little construction trailer was doing here,” says Blair, manning a desk in the trailer. “I said, ‘We’re building a new Blind Recreation Center. That old red building has finally been consigned to the trash heap.’ To my surprise, he offered to come in whenever we were ready and do all the grading free. And that’s what’s happening out there. Everybody you see is a volunteer.”
Hunt wasn’t the first to contribute his services. When the old building had to be torn down, Watkins Construction helped with asbestos removal. Hawthorne Machinery offered a discount on the heavy equipment. LaMar Trailers donated the use of the construction trailer we’re standing in. The fencing around the construction lot is on loan from American Fence Company.
The Plumbers & Pipefitters Union will donate labor. Dixieline Lumber is offering all construction materials at cost. The Cement Masons Local will pour the pad and footings; Mannington Carpet Mills will provide carpet at or below cost. The Fire Sprinkler Protection Association has made a huge donation. Andco Signs will donate all the signage, with plaques in three modes—lettering, Braille and voice activated.
“That isn’t even a San Diego company,” says Blair, in wonder. “One of our members met someone at a convention, and this North Carolina firm offered to help.” It’s a little like a barn-raising, with neighbors coming from all directions to build the new center for the blind.
Volunteer labor and materials at cost are making this new three-story, $2 million building possible. “It would have been closer to $3 million without all the in-kind donations. It’s become a labor of love,” says Blair, “a way people see to help in a good cause.”
Blair phones board member Lois Renfro, who lives only a block and a half from the construction site, and asks her to come talk to me.
Renfro is a retired secretary who has retinitas pigmentosa, gradual restricting of sight to a small central visual area. She has some “shadow vision” but depends heavily on her golden retriever guide dog, Nandy. The two arrive within minutes. Renfro’s loss of vision has been gradual. At one point she needed to learn her way around all over again and went to the Service Center for the Blind on El Cajon Boulevard.
“The very last thing, after they showed me at the Service Center for the Blind how to use a cane and go to the bank and all the rest of it, they sent me over here. I had to get on a bus and find my way. When you leave rehab training, you need a safety zone like this, a place where you can deal with new frustrations. The best thing that happened to me is that I was elected to the board of directors. It proved I still had value in the world.
“You need to be with people who empathize with what you’re going through,” says Renfro as she settles Nandy into a corner by the desk. “Five years ago, when my vision was getting worse, I saw friends with guide dogs, and I said to my-
self, okay, that’s not so bad. So I applied at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. I heard they had a good training program.
“A dog gives you security you don’t have with a cane. You don’t bump into things, and Nandy knows her way around. All I have to say is ‘We’re going to see Wendy,’ and she leads me right here.”
Nandy’s tail thumps against the wall in these crowded quarters. She offers me her paw. “Dogs have quite a vocabulary,” says Renfro. “She knows what to do if I say ‘Turn right through the hedge and find the door, Nandy.’”
For a visitor, it’s hard to believe Renfro is unable to see. “That’s because I was blinded late in life,” she says. “I focus on where I hear the voice.
“But some people have been visually impaired from birth. I imagine it’s harder for them. I heard of one man who had his sight restored, and he had a nervous breakdown. He couldn’t cope. You’re used to things as you’ve made them up in your head. When you finally see how fast the cars are going, or how many people are actually on that sidewalk you’ve been negotiating...”
Edna Mae Smith, blind from birth, understands. At one point in her youth she underwent a series of operations to correct her vision, but nothing worked. Was she disappointed? “Oh, I don’t think I care to see,” she says philosophically. “I’m so happy to be blind. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”
But both women agree it’s necessary to get out and do things. “Some blind people are afraid to walk out—to do anything. The family loves them so much, they won’t let them do for themselves,” says Smith. “There are so many blind people in San Diego, and they need a place to go to. I’m so glad they’re building a larger building. Children will be taking our place when we go, and they’ll need a place where they’ll find things to be happy about.”
INDEED, THE NEW CENTER—with its new name, the Blind Community Center —will place a greater emphasis on children. It will offer after-school tutoring by volunteers, and young people will be taught vocational skills. It will also continue the work of the Braille transcription center, where any book or document is transcribed at no charge by sighted volunteers. And it will continue the vision clinic, where eye exams and glasses are available at a minimum cost. Up to now, two exam rooms have accommodated a rotating roster of 100 volunteer optometrists. The clinic will be given better space in the new building,
The new emphasis on youth programs relates to a swelling of the blind population among young people. Based on census statistics, more than 100,000 people in San Diego are blind or visually impaired. Nearly 3,000 young people have been identified as blind or visually impaired. In addition, “They are saving so many premies with severe medical problems,” says Blair, “and most of those children will have attendant eye problems.”
It will be a busy place. But the Blind Recreation Center always has been a busy place. Renfro has especially enjoyed activities like the night walks around the city or a tour of Quail Gardens. Nature walks twice
a month are sponsored by the Museum of Natural History. “You learn the bushes, the trees; you hear the birds,” Renfro says.
Smith loves the crafts programs (she’s making an angel ornament out of safety pins and beads). George Drane, working on a leather wallet, says cheerfully, “I had to go blind to find out I could make things.”
Members also enjoy outings to various places—to Apple Valley; backpacking in the Grand Canyon; to Laughlin, Nevada. On a recent trip to Laughlin, Smith says, she lost $10 at the slot machines. But then, with three quarters, she won it all back—an entirely satisfactory outcome to a three-day journey. She attends craft classes every Monday and Tuesday and bowls on Fridays, recently scoring a 135—not bad for an elderly lady.
“Sure, we can bowl,” says one of her teammates at the Grove Bowl on College Grove Way. A sighted volunteer keeps score for the group, but “it’s easy to tell the difference between a strike and a spare and a gutter ball by the sound of the pins falling.”
Until recently, the oldest bowler on the eight-person team was 102-year-old Tom Lane (now deceased), “who made lots of strikes,” says Edna Mae. She also goes fishing with the group. “This is so I won’t be sitting around in a rocking chair.”
Volunteers are an essential part of the program. Blair estimates 73,000 volunteer hours went into running the center during last year alone. Sighted volunteers are trained to read Braille and do much of the transcription work. They also work with the talking book program, managing the second-largest talking book collection in the county (the largest is at the Service Center for the Blind).
Blair’s fund-raising effort at the moment is to match a $200,000 grant from a large foundation. “Much of it will be in-kind donations,” she says. “This seems to work for us. The whole thing of people just walking up and offering us things—it’s become a labor of love.”