Daily Record, New Jersey.
Sunday, April 02, 2006.
Blind campers renewed friendships each summer, taking long walks together, staying up late listening to music or just talking.
They swam in the pool and went on group outings to local plays. They say there is no other place they felt as safe, no other place they felt as comfortable, and each year they looked forward to spending a couple of weeks at the Diamond Spring Lodge in Denville.
The New Jersey Foundation for the Blind has been hosting the same kind of summer program for the blind for five decades. Now the foundation's executive director says it's time to change the organization's mission. The Denville-based foundation plans to focus on educational programs for older people who become blind late in life.
It sent out letters earlier this year to members to let them know it's creating a new program, starting later this month, and that the change in direction has a casualty -- the summer camp, the foundation's original reason for existence.
"It meant so much to so many people," Agnes Scewczyszyn, 82, of Berkeley Heights, said about the summer program. "We met people from all over New Jersey. That was the wonderful part about it. ... It makes me sad (that it will be gone)."
Donna Meade, executive director of the foundation, said last week that she intends to focus resources on what she believes is the organization's future. The foundation has long offered year-round courses in daily living skills but now plans to create a more intensive program. Meade and other foundation officials said they don't have enough resources to make those changes and continue the summer camp. Some of the organization's critics, including some former board members, say the foundation has plenty of money, and now appears to be turning its back on long-time members.
"I know that change is hard, but this is a strategic direction," Meade said.
Some critics of Meade's plan say the foundation doesn't fully utilize the two large buildings it owns on 26 acres of land in Denville and that the new plan will leave those buildings even more empty. They also point out that the foundation has a history of sitting on large assets -- a tradition that apparently continues, according to tax records.
The foundation had more than $13 million in assets in 2004, including $8 million in cash and securities, according to a financial report filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The $8 million in liquid assets was enough to operate almost another four years without one penny of contributions. The foundation reported it collected $1.9 million in contributions that year and had total revenues of $2.75 million, a half-million dollars more than it spent.
Arianna Callesso of Cedar Knolls, a former board member who said she resigned last year for personal reasons, said she listened at meetings where board members were told there wasn't enough money to continue the summer program. She didn't buy the reasoning.
'They've got money'
"I thought it was a bunch of baloney," said Callesso. "They've got money."
The foundation had been criticized several years ago for failing to do enough to help the blind. It was the subject of a state Attorney General's probe that started before Meade arrived in 2002, resulting in fines for failing to keep proper financial records. At the time, some critics said the foundation's offerings seemed too focused on recreational activities, without enough emphasis on education. Meade said the new programs address that criticism. She said the new programs will focus on people over 50 because that population is growing, with aging Baby Boomers having more and more vision problems.
"The people who don't have a lot of services are older adults," she said.
Vito DeSantis, executive director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said the state does offer services to that group, mostly home instruction. He said the commission helped 10,000 people last year and 4,000 were over 50 years old. He added that it makes sense for organizations that help the blind to target the growing population of visually impaired seniors.
"The need is there," he said.
He also talked about the importance of recreation for blind adults, and said no large-scale programs in the state offer the same kind of services as those that had been offered in Denville. Some of the 150 people attending the camp each year say it was the one chance they had to have carefree fun, to reconnect with friends from all over the state.
Bonding for the blind
"It was the one place we were bonded by our blindness, where we had a time to share and have a camaraderie," said Stephanie Starosciak, 77, of Westfield.
"It was like we were in our own world, watching out for one another," said Vonzola Whitaker, 52, of Paterson.
Officials with the Lions Club, a significant supporter of the New Jersey Foundation for the Blind, said they just recently heard about some of the proposed changes. They said they were short on specifics and are waiting for Meade to speak at a club meeting, perhaps next month. None of the officials were critical of the proposal.
Mel Bray, president of the Lions Club's New Jersey Council, said the change appears to be "necessary for the foundation's survival." He added that the blind community would benefit. Another Lions Club official said his organization might look into starting another summer recreational program for the blind at some point.
"We are going to have to see if we can replace what's been lost, a nice recreational program," said Ken Mattfield, a Lions Club district governor for Morris, Union and Essex counties.
Meade said the idea for the new program came from a visually-impaired board member, Laura Gardner-Lang, of Denville. Lang said last week that she believed the foundation needed more focus. She said some board members resisted the change before her proposal was approved. Most board members contacted last week deferred comment to Meade, and none criticized the changes.
Critics say the new program, and the cancellation of the summer camp, might result in the foundation spending even less money than before. Foundation officials would not reveal how much they are spending this year on programs. They have been offering daily living courses and said at any given time about 40 students attended those programs. They did not hold any classes this past winter, they said, because they were developing the new curriculum. They plan to have 24 students at the start of the new program. They said they are hoping the program, though it will start small, will result in an expansion of services.
"We intend to grow," Gardner-Lang said.
For now, critics say, the foundation appears to shrinking.
"They have a need to spend money and they don't have a clear mission statement," said Jim Elekes, of Union, a former board member. "The recreational services are what they are good at ... Many of the individuals (who attended the summer program) are on fixed incomes and don't have the luxury of going on vacation."
He and others said the foundation has not been clear enough about its intentions. The foundation already has been providing courses to help blind people with daily living, such as cooking, reading Braille, and using computers. So critics have been asking: What is going to change?
Foundation officials responded that they are still working on the curriculum. They said they hired a social worker to help evaluate clients, to determine their needs, something they never did before. Instead of offering unrelated classes, as in the past, they said the new program would be a comprehensive series of classes. But they were unable to say how much the new program would cost.
"We have not worked out the cost yet," said Iris Torres, a consultant hired to help create the new curriculum.
While critics say the foundation still doesn't spend enough on programs for the blind, financial records show Meade has increased program spending -- from $918,000 in 2002 to $1.5 million in 2004. The same records show the foundation is a little less bloated than it used to be. It had enough liquid assets in 2000 to cover five years of operating costs. That was down to four years in 2004, which some experts say is still too much. Meade said last week that the organization needs a cushion because it costs a lot of money to maintain the foundation's large buildings and expansive grounds, assessed at more than $4 million. She said the foundation is replacing a 40-year-old heating and air conditioning system.
Some experts say charities should not hold on to buildings too large for them to use.
"They are not in the real estate business," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a national nonprofit charity watchdog. He said his organization is critical of charities that hold more than three years of operating costs in liquid assets.
Meade gave a tour of the foundation's buildings to a reporter last week and acknowledged that they are underutilized. She walked down empty corridors of one of the buildings, the Diamond Spring Lodge, leading to 32 rooms that were used for the summer residential program. The building also has an industrial kitchen used for that program and a large auditorium. There are no immediate plans to use the kitchen or the residential units. Meade says she hopes the programs she plans to implement will grow and one day fill the foundation's two buildings. She said she hopes someday to start a winter residential educational program.
Until those plans develop, the lodge remains largely empty.
Abbott Koloff can be reached at (973) 989-0652 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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