PORT RICHEY — When first losing their sight, people often fear the “can’ts” — can’t cook, can’t read, can’t write checks, can’t take medications independently.
For three decades, Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind leaders have taken pride in shining a beacon into the lives of perhaps 20,000 people to find a path out of that darkness.
With free services, staff and volunteers help turn “can’t” into “can” for clients ranging in age from three months to 90.
The nonprofit Lighthouse will observe its 30th anniversary on Oct. 7, with an open house 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at its Port Richey office, 8610 Galen Wilson Blvd., Port Richey.
Later, a Lighthouse Birthday Dinner will take place 4-7 p.m. at Grille 54, 10900 State Road 54, Trinity. Dinner costs $12 per person. For reservations, call (727) 815-0303 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Lighthouse also operates a location at 6492 California St. in Brooksville.
“Blindness is the number-one fear that people face,” Sylvia Stinson-Perez, executive director of Lighthouse has said. She is legally blind from a congenital eye condition.
Simple steps might include a rubber band to indicate evening medications, for instance. Classes teach people how to mark stoves and other kitchen appliances.
Lighthouse offers independent living classes, including sessions in its own demonstration kitchen. Crafts classes are available.
Since 1996, the Little Lighthouse program has provided early intervention for visually impaired babies. The Children’s Program came later to assist children 5 to 13 years old. In 2009, Lighthouse added training for teens and vocational rehabilitation for adults.
With an unemployment rate of 70 percent among people with vision problems, the Lighthouse Opportunity Center annex opened in April 2012 to provide manufacturing and assembly jobs for blind or visually impaired people.
The Lighthouse has evolved a lot since February 1983, when some 150 people showed up at a town hall meeting about establishing a center for the blind.
Charles Jackson, the Lighthouse’s first executive director, facilitated the donation of a house on Virginia Avenue by the First Methodist Church of New Port Richey and a donation of $500 from the BLIND Club of New Port Richey. The new agency, then called Suncoast Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, opened its doors in October 1983.
Jackson also persuaded Chasco Fiesta organizers to allow the Lighthouse to host and receive proceeds from the Coronation Ball. The Lighthouse has hosted the Coronation Ball for 28 years with proceeds now going to the Blind Babies Program.
Marlene Swartz, one of the co-founders of the agency, worked as a rehabilitation teacher and grant writer.
Then the agency moved to Main Street for a time. Lighthouse landed in the old Hudson library on Old Dixie Highway. But the no-name storm in March 1993 flooded the county-owned building and nearly wiped out the Lighthouse.
In October 1996, Lighthouse switched to its current name and finally settled into the county-owned facility at 8610 Galen Wilson Blvd. in Port Richey.
Technology available now for the blind is like “night and day,” Perez observed.
The Lighthouse added a computers-assistive technology program to help visually impaired individuals reduce their isolation and increase their access to information.
Some wristwatches announce the time, for instance, although Perez prefers a flip-top, tactile watch that lets her feel Braille codes for the time of day.
Cellphones also can announce which buttons blind people are pushing. In fact, a whole host of clocks, scales, microwave ovens and other devices can get downright chatty, thanks to computer chips.
Computers come with all types of scanners, overhead projectors and other adapters for the blind. Programs can read back what’s on the screen.
As the Pasco population grows older, Lighthouse services will be needed more than ever, Perez pointed out. Already some 15 percent of Pasco residents over the age of 70 are blind or have impaired vision.
For more information about Lighthouse’s programs and services, visit their website at www.lvib.org or call (727) 815-0303.