Lighthouse of Collier: Making life better for the blind and visually impaired
Imagine being legally blind but still able to navigate a big city like Chicago alone and enjoy a full life with family, community support and independence. Your vision is fading year by year, however, and by the time you relocate to Collier County, it’s almost gone. Here you are, nearly blind and left to your own devices, in a new and unfamiliar town.
That was Sharone Frankowski’s story until three years ago, when she discovered Lighthouse of Collier County. Social isolation is now out the window, and thanks to the classes and resources the organization provides her, Ms. Frankowski is independent enough to start thinking about employment. At 71 years old, she has the confidence and can-do spirit to take care of herself again.
The only center for blindness and vision loss in Collier County, Lighthouse is devoted to helping the area’s estimated 14,000 blind and visually impaired adults and children learn daily living skills and the use of assistive technology such as iPhones and programs that provide speech and Braille output for popular computer applications.
“Everyone who comes in here is different,” says Executive Director Robin Garcia. “Some are very confident with themselves because they’ve had services. But the majority of the adults who come through our door are just losing their vision and have been depending on someone else.”
Helping clients realize they can live independently and be of value to their families and communities can take some convincing, Ms. Garcia says, and that’s why the social component to Lighthouse’s services is vital in fostering independence and confidence. Trips to the zoo, hiking excursions and brown bag lunches are just a few opportunities the organization offers so clients can mingle and have new experiences they aren’t likely to have on their own.
“We encourage them to come in and spend time with other visually impaired people so they don’t feel alone,” she adds. Caregivers, she adds, often are reluctant to take visually impaired friends or family members on such outings because they fear for their safety.
The close-knit, family atmosphere at Lighthouse has been very encouraging to Ms. Frankowski, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to hop aboard Collier County’s paratransit bus to go to the center.
“There hasn’t been a day since I’ve been here that I didn’t learn something,” she adds. “I’ve made friends here. It’s like a family.”
With all this emotional support and encouragement, what exactly is there to learn? A lot, especially for people who are gradually losing their vision rather than having been born without it. As Ms. Garcia explains, people learn most tasks by observation, and when they lose their sight, they lose confidence that they can relearn life skills.
“When you get an adult who always learned by seeing, sometimes they struggle and get very frustrated because they have to use other senses,” she says. “They have to use their sense of feeling, smell and hearing better … It’s something that has to be taught.”
Armed with a certified vision rehab specialist, a certified mobility and orientation instructor and two assistive technology instructors, Lighthouse of Collier provides instruction on safely navigating homes and communities, self-care and housekeeping and technological skills that include Braille, computer, internet and iPhone literacy.
The organization also offers children’s programs and a highly successful summer camp where visually impaired kids take field trips, play sports and learn how to play with magnifiers, CCTVs, talking computers and more. In its seventh year, the camp is serving 25 youngsters through July with the help of several community sponsors and volunteers. Headquartered at The Girl Scout House of Naples, everyone pitches in to ensure that kids have a great summer among peers who have similar needs.
Andrew Muller, 5, started attending the camp when he was 2 years old. His mother, Marsha Muller, says any apprehensions she had about sending her toddler to camp were short-lived. “On the second day he was standing by the door, ready to go. He was not afraid to be without his mom because they made it so comfortable for him.”
Andrew’s lenses were removed due to cataracts when he was 4 months old. While he is visually impaired, he can still detect light and color.
His favorite camp activities are art projects that utilize tactile objects. His mother says the biggest impact the camp has made, however, is the friends he has been able to make.
“Some of the kids have more severe disabilities than Andrew has, and he’s formed friendships with them as well as helped them.”
An eye on the future
Lighthouse of Collier has been housed in a partially donated, 3,100-square-foot space on Horseshoe Drive since April 2013, when the organization moved from a much smaller, fully donated office space at Bayfront. The organization does pay rent now, but at a heavily discounted rate.
“Our expansion is always based on needs of the clients, and one of the things that I know we need to do is get our own building or find larger space,” Ms. Garcia says. A Lighthouse van or bus for client transport would also make a huge difference, she adds. Right now, clients must depend on other people or the county’s paratransit bus service to get them to the center.
For the moment, however, she and her team are focused on outreach to unsure that everyone in Collier County who could benefit from the programs and services offered by Lighthouse is aware of the organization. That effort includes traveling to schools, retirement homes, recreational facilities and business groups and partnering with the Collier County Association for the Blind and local teachers who work with blind students.
“These people need to hear about Lighthouse in order to get services,” Ms. Garcia says. “It’s really important that we get the word out and make sure these people are utilizing us.” ¦
Lighthouse of Collier
>> Where: 2685 Horseshoe Drive S.
>> Mission: The mission of Lighthouse of Collier is to foster independence and enhance the quality of life for the blind, visually impaired and their caregivers.
>> Executive director: Robin Garcia
>> Board president: Art Bookbinder
>> Major fundraiser: “Strings Under the Stars,” a dinner and violin concert with Max Rabinovitsj, set for Monday, Nov. 14, at Vineyards Country Club
>> Volunteer opportunities: Lighthouse of Collier seeks volunteers who are skilled in email marketing, Microsoft Excel, database management, website management and public relations.
>> Giving opportunities: The website has a wish list of items the organization welcomes as donations.
>> Info: 430-3934 or lighthouseofcollier.org