DENVILLE TWP. – To celebrate Blindness Awareness Month and its 75th anniversary, Vision Loss Alliance is hosting Dining in the Dark on Thursday, Oct. 25 at the Meadow Wood Manor in Randolph Township.
Guests will experience a multi-course gourmet meal with all their senses — except sight — while supporting one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults with vision loss.
Twelve years later, according to a press release, the nonprofit opened a summer camp in Denville because there was nothing like it for women with blindness. By 2006, the nonprofit had evolved into the only comprehensive, nonresidential vision rehabilitation program for adults in New Jersey.
Throughout its 75-year history, Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey has been fulfilling unmet needs for adults with serious vision loss, a growing and underserved population.
“In all its different forms over seven-and-a-half decades, Vision Loss Alliance has empowered adults with vision loss, helping them overcome challenges so they can enjoy fulfilling lives,” Executive Director Kris Marino said.
When Chris Franz was a young adult, she began attending the iconic Diamond Spring Lodge in Denville for summer vacations. The nonprofit then was called NJ Foundation for the Blind.
“I loved it! I developed friendships, and I felt like I belonged,” she said.
“Ididn’t feel like I have the cooties like I do in the real world,’’ said Franz, now 48. For more than a decade, she enjoyed socializing and swimming, and also learned skills that would help her become independent. When Vision Loss Alliance began to focus on its year-round rehabilitation program, Franz learned computer skills and enrolled in adaptive daily living classes.
“My parents were very protective, and they didn’t think I could do things on my own,” Franz said. “This place has made me happy and confident.”
Vision Loss Alliance teaches participants practical skills, such as how to get around and cook safely in their home, and coping skills to overcome the feelings of isolation and fear, Marino said. Participants learn to use technology to enhance their lives. They take exercise and other wellness classes. Often, they discover through enrichment classes a passion for painting, dancing, or gardening. The nonprofit this year added low vision occupational therapy, offering one-on-one sessions to help adults optimize their remaining vision.
As New Jersey’s population ages, the need for vision rehabilitation services will grow; eye diseases like macular degeneration and glaucoma are closely linked to aging. In 2012, people age 65 and over made up 14 percent of New Jersey’s population, but they’ll account for nearly 22 percent of it in 2032, according to state Department of Labor and Workforce Development projections. The National Eye Institute projects the number of people who are blind and visually impaired in the U.S. will increase 70 percent by 2030.
“Access to services is a huge issue for adults with low vision,” said Marino, noting Vision Loss Alliance offers Better Health and Wellness programs in Montclair and Ridgewood.
Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease at age 8, Bergen County resident Debbie Tester skillfully adapted to her deteriorating vision through young adulthood, marriage and motherhood. But in 2015, at age 53, the loss was so dramatic that it drove her into a severe depression.
“I felt like I couldn’t take care of my kids. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t go anywhere. I just sat on the couch for a year and a half,” she said. Then she was introduced to Vision Loss Alliance. “This place saved my life,” Tester said. “It awakened me, and I feel good.”
Peggy Kane attended the nonprofit’s summer camp in the early 1970s, and later, after becoming a certified rehabilitation instructor and earning a master’s degree in individual counseling, she became a Vision Loss Alliance instructor.
“There’s so much camaraderie between all the students and the staff,” Kane said. “There’s a healing factor in talking to people who are dealing with what you’re dealing with.”
The nonprofit in 2016 adopted the name Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey to more accurately reflect what it is: an alliance of individuals, organizations and communities dedicated to helping adults who lose their sight learn to adapt and regain confidence.
It has served well over 50,000 people over its history.