Tools for creating and for living
Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired
"Our objective is helping people to live as independently as they would like. Confidence is our goal."
Lowell Zercher, Manual Skills Instructor for the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, chooses these words to explain the mission of the center.
"We want our clients to be involved in life, to meet their life and work goals and contribute their talents to others, to the community."
Lowell has worked at the center in Anchorage for 14 years. He is often found in the shop at the center, teaching skills such as beadwork, woodworking, sewing, skills involved in creating with clay, copper, leather. He admits that his efforts are sometimes met with resistance.
This day in October when I am visiting the shop, he remembers the reluctance he first encountered in working with Carey Monacelli. Carey admits to his initial resistance.
"I wasn't sure I wanted any part of the skills Lowell was trying to teach me."
That was 11 years ago, when Carey first came to the center. Carey had been an auto body artist, an elk hunter, had loved fishing and football.
"Then one day, I got up and started walking into walls. It was like I was snowblind. I spent eight months in darkness – couldn't keep my eyes open."
Eventually he was diagnosed with facial dystonia by a neurologist.
"It can affect any part of the body," Carey explains. "It was a problem in my brain. I had stress spasms, head bobbing. I'd bump into stuff and knock things over."
Medications have now made things better for Carey.
"I can control the symptoms much better."
And his life is far from sedentary or reclusive.
"I'm out there doing things, working – just doing things differently."
He credits the center for helping him learn new ways of doing things, new skills for a modified, but full life.
"I don't drive anymore but I still go to Ship Creek and fish. I ride the bus to the creek and back – bring my pole and my fish, my catch of the day – right onto the bus with me. And I'm working. I'm the Residential Monitor for the apartments above the center, where people who are blind or visually impaired come from all over the state and stay for a month, for vision rehabilitation."
Carey is still very much an artist, no longer working in metal on cars, but in wood turning.
"His wooden bowls are definitely art pieces," comments Jill Myer, Donor Development Coordinator for the Center. They are exquisite, beautiful pieces, sitting on shelves in the shop, combining different kinds of exotic woods in a single piece.
"Make more," Jill tells Carey. She knows that they make attractive centerpieces at the center's fundraiser luncheons. Several years ago, on a tour of the center, I purchased one of Carey's bowls. It sits proudly in my living room, drawing many admiring comments.
Lowell admits these fine art pieces are a far cry from the work Carey originally did in the shop.
"At first he said 'I'm done with this!' Then he made one small bowl – then two more – then a bullet shape and then a wooden football shape. He was hooked!"
Resource for Alaskans with sight loss
Carey is one of hundreds of clients served by the center each year since it opened in 1977. Jill estimates that 400 people from across the state were clients in 2012.
"It is the only statewide resource for vision rehabilitation for all Alaskans with uncorrectable sight loss," she says. In addition to the shop, there are many other resources for independent living at the center. There is a student kitchen to teach cooking, organizational and nutrition skills; a computer room with screens that can magnify up to 15 times; a low vision room full of magnifiers and other devices for maximizing remaining sight.
A grant from the Gottstein Family Foundation provides each client with funds for the devices they select, with a total value of up to $125.
Charity Son is the Rural Outreach Coordinator, for clients outside of Anchorage. She explains that the Rural Outreach Grant was first awarded in 2007, by the Alaska State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Since then, the center has provided vision services in Barrow, Bethel, the Cordova-Valdez area, Fairbanks, the Glennallen and Copper River area, Haines, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, Nenana, Noatak, Nome, Palmer, Seward, Sitka, Skagway and Soldotna. Through this grant, the center is able to provide up to $125 in optical and non-optical, low-vision devices to clients in the more rural areas of the state.
Charity explains that the goal in the villages and smaller towns is the same as in Anchorage.
"We want the people we serve to be as independent as they want to be – in dealing with their family, their community, their self-care. Eye health affects everything else. We try to hold clinics in these rural areas when possible. Usually people come to us after they have been seen by an eye-care professional – perhaps an optometrist or ophthalmologist." She adds, "We go out to the homes as much as possible. Someone in the eye-care field often comes along to the home as an escort, a facilitator who knows the local population."
Much of the work in the villages is with the village elders.
It is the senior population that is typically most often served by the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Bonnie Lucas is the Coordinator for the Visually Impaired Senior Alaskans Program (VISA). She estimates that two-thirds of the clients at the center, in Anchorage and statewide, are seniors.
"Some of them tell me that VISA stands for Very Intelligent Senior Alaskans. I'm fine with that. We provided them with devices to make life safer and easier for them, and with activities to keep them independent and smart."
Bonnie explains that a VISA group meets at the Center (3903 Taft Drive in Anchorage) twice a month, on the second and fourth Wednesdays, from noon to 1 p.m.
"We have speakers on topics like fall prevention, home organizing, understanding Medicare, information on new technologies such as iPhone apps for the blind.
"Sometimes it is just open discussion and sharing. We have activities related to holidays – a Halloween party with pumpkin soup, we make holiday punch to share or give as a gift, we'll have a big Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday, November 27, at noon. And we take field trips all over – we've gone to the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo, to the Alaska Zoo to ride on golf carts, to the Botanical Gardens, to the parks for picnics."
Bonnie adds, "We'd love to have more people join us." Anyone interested in information on VISA activities or any other services provided at the center may call 248-7770 in Anchorage or toll-free statewide, 1-800-770-7517.
Tour the center
Tours called "Through Our Eyes" will be held at the center from noon to 1 p.m. on November 15, December 2, January 23, March 6 and April 3. Call Jill Myer at 771-4311 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot on a tour. Tours are free and include a light lunch. Attendees learn about different eye conditions and diseases and the effects that they have on vision. They also participate in abbreviated versions of the classes offered at the center.
Those on the tours may even have the opportunity to visit the shop and see some of Carey's beautiful wooden bowls. But don't expect to see Carey. He's moving soon to Washington state, but not leaving behind the art and living skills he's learned at the Center.
"I'll be buying my own lathe, a grinder and a drill, a dust collector."
He's determined to continue his work, turning out unique wooden bowls.