Blind World Magazine

Lighthouse struggles to serve the blind.

Palm Beach Post (Florida).
Sunday, February 19, 2006.

WEST PALM BEACH - The Lighthouse for the Blind turns 60 this year, still doing business at the same address, but as it looks back on an admirable history of service to the county's visually impaired and blind residents, it's also straining to see beyond a very cloudy financial future.

"We've eliminated 10 positions and stopped our homebound services," said CEO Bill Thompson, who's led the Lighthouse for 38 years. "And we're the only agency providing the services we provide."

Founded in January 1946 by the West Palm Beach Lions Club, it began life as Lions Industries for the Blind with a 100-by-200 foot lot at 7810 S. Dixie Highway and a construction budget of $10,000.

In those early days, the services reflected a well-meaning but short-sighted emphasis on industrial skills, training the clients to make simple crafts that might, or might not, be sold for a small profit.

In 1952, a kindergarten opened; in 1968, a summer program for pre-teens was established; and in 1971, an adjustment program for older blind people was introduced.

The 8,000-square-foot building doubled its size in 1975, and three years later changed its name to Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches.

Vocational services were added, then a computer learning program, an early intervention program for children under 5 and an outreach program to provide home-based services.

But as space and services expanded, so did the cost.

When Thompson was hired as executive director in 1967, he recalled, the agency's annual budget was $110,000. In 2002, it hit an all-time high of $2.8 million. This year, it has dropped to $1.6 million. But after operating at a growing deficit for several years, it's finally reached the breaking point.

"In 2004, our deficit was $490,342," Thompson said. "Last year, it was $611,427. So far this fiscal year, we've already lost $344,952, and if nothing changes before June, we're looking at another $300,000."

Almost all nonprofit social service agencies saw a drop in donations after Sept. 11, 2001, and the calls for donations to aid victims of the 2004 South Asian tsunami and last year's Hurricane Katrina have spread donations even thinner. But Thompson traces the Lighthouse's growing deficit to what he calls an "inexplicable" drop in bequests.

"They could be trending down because Baby Boomers are not as generous as prior generations," he suggested. "There may not be as many fortunes. I don't know." He shrugged. "People are living longer."

Although the money shrinks, the need grows.

Palm Beach County has about 48,000 blind and visually impaired residents, according to the Florida Association of Agencies Serving The Blind. But unlike many social service agencies, the Lighthouse gets very little government money, Thompson said.

"We have three grants from the Florida Division of Blind Services totaling $363,000," he explained. "But this year those same services will cost us $1,488,591."

And while 28 percent of Florida's population is 55 or over, the figure is 33 percent in Palm Beach County, he said. It's a small but significant difference because many of the agency's clients are senior citizens battling age-related macular degeneration, a progressive disease in which the central part of the retina slowly deteriorates.

That's what brought Pat Jensen, 79, to the Lighthouse.

Four years ago, Jensen, of The Acreage, was driving her grandchildren home from kindergarten when she had to acknowledge that something was seriously wrong with her vision.

"It looked like somebody had poured milk on the car's windshield," she recalled. "I got home and told my daughter, 'I'm never going to drive again.' "

Last year, after Jensen completed her 14th laser treatment, her ophthalmologist told her there was no more to be done. She had too much scar tissue to make another treatment effective.

She went home to her large-print books, and when she'd finished them, a friend told her the Lighthouse for the Blind had audio books. On her first visit, she found the books, and the Independent Living Skills class.

"My first day here, I started crying because some of the other people were so much worse off and I just felt totally selfish," she says. "I was just blubbering, crying 'I'm so happy to be here.' "

Since then, Jensen has learned again to do those little things she'd done all her life - use a phone, thread a needle, peel a vegetable, iron a skirt - and make friends.

Now she's a volunteer, returning weekly to teach newcomers what she's learned.

"Once you get over your pity party," she says, "it's a fun place. I think I would rather know the people here than be able to drive and read. I just can't say enough about the Lighthouse."

Just across the hall from the large room where Jensen and her friends meet, a 2-year-old girl named Destiny Wetter is lying in her carrier while early-intervention therapist Cindy Wolke passes a flashing toy back and forth, back and forth, above her eyes.

"She's learning to track better," says her mother, Terri. "Even in this short time, I've noticed she smiles when she sees something."

Born prematurely, Destiny has some limited vision, but the nerves that carry images from her eyes to her brain are underdeveloped, and this weekly therapy session is an attempt to teach her mind to recognize what her eyes are seeing.

"We're trying to find things she's really interested in," explains Wolke, exchanging the flashing toy for a brightly printed paper plate adorned with garish cartoon characters. "She still gets really overwhelmed by her environment."

The Wetters live in northern Palm Beach County, but her mother drives her to the south end of West Palm Beach every week for the therapy.

"I'm just glad to have someplace to bring my daughter so hopefully what vision she does have will be useful to her," she says.

And Wolke is glad to have her job. She's one of the 22 fortunate staff members still working after Thompson found himself forced to eliminate 10 positions as of Dec. 1. Those cuts saved about $500,000, but left only the staff's essential core, he said.

Among the employees remaining are Sandy Lamb, the agency's administration and human resources vice president, who's been with the Lighthouse for 36 years, and Dawn Clemons, development and communications vice president, a 21-year veteran.

"We agonized for two or three months," Thompson said. "They were prized employees, every single one, and they're irreplaceable."

Earlier, Thompson canceled homebound services because the mileage reimbursement alone was costing $35,000 a year.

And now he wonders how to help an agency that's helped the blind find their way for 60 years find its own way again.

"We're operating as tight as possible," he said. "We're crippled."

End of article.

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