Grandma, I Can't Believe You're Doing This!
A Profile of the Center for the Visually Impaired in Daytona Beach, Florida
by B. T. Kimbrough
Salem, Oregon

When the new computer training program opened its doors in 2000, the staff at Center for the Visually Impaired in Daytona Beach, Florida didn't expect a huge amount of interest. After all, 70 percent of their clients are seniors. But according to Ronee Hudson, CVI's executive director, enthusiasm for the free computer and technology training has "gone right through the roof." In fact, the interest generated by the training, which covers e-mail, Internet browsing, word processing and other basics, has not been limited to the clients themselves. CVI staff members report that trainees frequently share e-mail messages they have received from awestruck family members, such as "Grandma! I can't believe you're doing this!"

The program is supported with funds allocated by United Way and state and federal grants targeted to promote independent living for blind seniors.

Computer training is only one of the current programs at CVI, which serves 400 people per year, according to staff estimates. During a recent telephone conversation, several members of the CVI staff gave me an overview of the center's history and current programs.

CVI was established in 1988 by Kathy Davis, who is perhaps better known as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida. Hudson told me that CVI was established because "at that time, there were no services for seniors in this community." The seed money from United Way and the Florida Division of Blind Services was used to fund a daily living skills class for blind seniors, programming not supported by vocational rehabilitation funding because seniors are traditionally not considered to be serious candidates for employment.

By the time Hudson joined the staff in 1992 as an orientation and mobility specialist, funds had been located to serve younger clients as well. Hudson said, "I remember serving two- and three-year-old blind babies, and I was going all over the four counties that we served at that time." Hudson became executive director in 2000, just as the computer training grant provided for the rapid expansion of the organization's outreach and increased range of services.

Another of CVI's more recent ventures is exclusively focused on teenagers from four surrounding counties. A total of 28 students are enrolled in this transition program, so named, because its aim is to energize and facilitate the transition from exclusively educational to primarily vocational preparation. Although the CVI transition program does include summer work experiences for students with local employers, instructor Benjamin Fischer told me that his two monthly sessions are not primarily concerned with training for specific occupations. Instead the Saturday training sessions concentrate on helping students build strengths in such skills as public speaking, event planning and stress management, areas which might give them a competitive edge once they move into the job market.

Perhaps the most unusual topic on the schedule is the arts and music initiative. According to instructor Fischer, this part of the curriculum functions as described by the National Endowment for the Arts, "The arts have many benefits that help create successful employment, such as higher thinking skills and self-confidence." Of course, the students came to the program with differing levels of musical aptitude and training, which required some thought and careful lesson planning. According to Fischer the solution was to have students work with computer-generated music which can be made from a standard data keyboard, and sounds like the synthesizers which play a part in many of today's popular recordings. Fischer expressed confidence that the arts and music initiative will pay dividends "to help students find their voice for self-advocacy, and help with higher thinking skills such as critical thinking and task persistence that are so important in seeking out employment and excelling in your place of employment."

Although there are many other transition programs around the country, CVI's transition supervisor, Daniel Pekich told me that he consciously avoided previous models. "I have a rehabilitation counseling and mental health counseling background," he said. "What I tried to do was to model the program based on the population's needs ... based on the age of the students ... but also what's new in terms of research and rehab today."

Rare and advantageous circumstances of geography and history have combined to offer Hudson and her staff an unusual range of choices about whom to serve and how. CVI shares a 25-acre campus with several other organizations serving blind and visually impaired Floridians. CVI is literally next door to the state's residential training center (directed by Hudson's husband Ed), a major technology training facility, the Florida Braille and Talking Book Library, a training center focusing on multiple disabilities and the district office of the state Division of Blind Services. With so many related services already locally available, Hudson and her staff were free to concentrate on a few select programs for particular segments of the blind population. In this unique situation, CVI might have avoided economic and political pressures which often influence the evolution of organizations in more conventional settings. The campus is situated on a World War II military base. The land was donated to the state of Florida after the war, and eventually, much of the site was permanently transferred to the Florida Division of Blind Services. According to Hudson, being part of this unique multi-agency facility offers advantages to everyone involved. One can easily imagine the convenience for clients, who can use many services in one visit without arranging multiple rides. Professional committees, involving representatives from the programs on campus, should require a minimum of mileage reimbursement. Moreover, without directly attributing it to this special physical closeness of many state agencies, Hudson did note that there is a high degree of collaboration between public and private agencies serving people who are blind in Florida.

From its modest beginning as a single class for underserved blind seniors, CVI has grown in its first 20 years into a diverse group of services with a staff of 20 and a million-dollar annual budget. As for future plans, Hudson and DEBBIE Ryan, director of development, mentioned a low vision clinic, a sensory garden and a mentoring program in which seniors would work not only to mentor others in the same age group, but would also serve as mentors for students in the transition program. While there are national resources to bring together experienced adult blind workers and younger people seeking mentors, it would be more unusual to bring retired blind people together with first-time job seekers. In any case, while hearing about this ambitious plan, I found myself picturing a grandchild reading Grandmother's e-mail message about how busy she is helping a younger person prepare for a job interview. In this little fantasy of my own creation, the grandchild dashes off a quick reply that says, "Grandma, I can't believe you're doing this!"

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