Daily Record, New Jersey.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006.
DENVILLE -- LouciousJones, legally blind from childhood, wants to become a real estate agent, so he figured he should improve his computer skills. He was in a classroom Tuesday learning how to use a software program that allows him to hear what is typed onto a computer screen and to listen to e-mails. He said that would help him work faster -- the whole point of taking this class.
"I have a vocational goal,"Jones, 39, of Newark, said.
Jones is the kind of student the New Jersey Foundation for the Blind is looking for as officials say they are shifting emphasis from recreation to practical education -- a change that has sparked debate in the blind community and has some saying they are being shut out of programs at the foundation's Diamond Spring Lodge.
A total of eight students were taking classes at the lodge Tuesday, halfway through an eight-week pilot program that is part of the organization shift. Foundation executive director Donna Meade previously announced she was canceling a summer camp, which had been the group's original reason for existence. The changes at the lodge have been even more sweeping.
Meade turned down an invitation by Lions Club officials to attend a Union County Association for the Blind meeting Tuesday night to explain some of those changes.
She said she is willing to meet with officials from the Lions Club, a longtime supporter of the foundation, but saw no point talking to members of the Union County Association of the Blind, some of whom were expected to attend the meeting to express anger over the changes.
"I believe the purpose of the meeting is those folks want a different answer than they are going to get from me," Meade said. "There is no point getting into that."
Looking for answers
People who attended classes and a summer overnight camp at the foundation previously expressed anger over the cancellation of the camp. Some said it was the only chance they had to spend time with other blind people and relax. Now, they say they are being completely shut out of the lodge the rest of the year, and courses being offered no longer cater to their needs. They say the foundation's buildings are even more underutilized than before -- with only a little more than a handful of students attending classes at any one time in two connected multistory buildings that contain dozens of rooms, an industrial kitchen and a large auditorium.
"We'd like to know why they made these drastic changes,"said Agnes Scewczyszyn, 82, of Berkeley Heights, a former student at the lodge. "How can they justify having that big facility?"
Lions Club officials also have some questions about the new program. They said that as of Tuesday, months after the new program was announced, they were still short on details. They said they did not know students were being charged for the new program -- as much as $350 per eight-week session, including transportation. Classes at the foundation used to be free. They said they did not know how many students have been attending. The old program drew between 40 and 60 people.
While eight students attended classes on Tuesday, Meade said the pilot program has a total of 11 full-time students who attend classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another 11 taking individual courses on other days.
"These are the things we have to put together," said Kenneth Mattfield, head of the Lions Club region that covers Morris, Union and Essex counties. "My initial impression was that people were upset because they dropped the summer program -- but it is more than that."
He said Lions Clubs might consider offering subsidies to help low-income people attend classes at the lodge. Meade said not all new students are being charged the full amount. But she said all students are being charged something. She said that is part of a change in philosophy, and that paying for classes would ensure students take them seriously. She said even students who pay full price do not come close to paying the actual cost of their education, which she estimated at between $2,500 and $3,500 per student without transportation costs.
She and other officials said the lodge used to be a place where people hung out and had coffee, sometimes taking classes. The focus now is on rehabilitation for older people who recently became blind, or who need to learn new skills.
"It's no longer adult daycare," Meade said.
Loss of lifeline
Former students say they were doing more than hanging out. They say they were taking classes that helped them in everyday life, and that camaraderie at the lodge was important for their psychological health, that it was like a support group with an educational component.
"It was a lifeline to me," said Amy Raich, 58, of Parsippany. "I was with other people and could hear what they were going through. We went to New York at Christmastime to Radio City. We went to shows and museums. The lodge brought me out of my shell. It was a home away from home."
Meade said former students are welcome to take classes at the lodge this fall, after the pilot program ends -- as long as they demonstrate a need. She said she expects former students who don't need classes to find social services in their own communities. Raich said there are no similar services for the visually impaired.
"It's not just me that feels this way, with nothing to do,"Raich said. "It's many, many people."
Raich and other former students also questioned the new curriculum. No classes were held this past winter because foundation officials said they were busy making changes to the curriculum. Former students who have seen a schedule of classes say it appears some of the same courses are being taught, only with new names --Braille is now Hot Dots, Cooking is Chef's Hat, mobility lessons are called Get Up and Go.
Some teachers interviewed Tuesday acknowledged that they are teaching courses similar to what had been taught last year. But while some classes are similar, Meade said there is an emphasis on integrating courses -- so music appreciation, for example, also focuses on improving motor skills.
Students attending class on Tuesday had nothing but praise for the program.
Jones said he expects the computer program to help him when he goes to work. He also said he was learning Braille so he could read books to his young daughters. Tricia Ebel, 40, of Secaucus, said she was taking a computer course so she would know what her children are up to on the computer. They both said they also learned about gadgets to help the visually impaired, such as a knife with a guide to help slice food and a device that attaches to coffee cups and helps prevent spills by beeping when liquid gets close to the brim.
Dora Hale, 74, of Randolph, said she recently lost much of her vision and has been feeling helpless. She said courses at the lodge helped her learn how to go up and down stairs, and to find her way along corridors. She was learning all over again how to use a knife and fork on Tuesday. Hale said her daughter had been cutting her food.
"It has been great," she said of the program, adding she also has been helped by talking to people going through the same thing, saying they have been encouraging.
Meade said she expects the new program costs to be similar to the old program, which was about $1.5 million in 2004, according to tax documents filed by the foundation.
Some critics, including former board members, have said the foundation doesn't spend enough of its assets. It had more than $13 million in assets in 2004. That included $8 million in cash and securities, enough to operate almost another four years without any contributions. Meade has said a cushion is needed to maintain the foundation's buildings and expansive grounds. Critics have said the buildings are too big for what the foundation is doing.
"They have a building that's so underutilized," said Bill Totten, president of the Union County Association of the Blind.
Meade doesn't disagree --particularly now that the main building's 32 rooms with beds no longer are used for an overnight camp. She said she hopes someday to have a residential educational program in place to use those rooms.
While teachers interviewed Tuesday said they have fewer students than before, Meade said that's to be expected in a pilot program where one of the goals is to work out kinks. She said she hopes to have at least 40 students for programs planned for the fall. She said that would be the same number of students as last year.
Abbott Koloff can be reached at (973) 989-0652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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