DIALOGUE Interviews Julie Connoyer of Seedlings

Braille literacy is a critical need for people of all ages who are blind. Ready access to braille materials is of utmost importance and assisting in this effort is the Michigan-based nonprofit, Seedlings Braille Books for Children. Recently we contacted Julie Connoyer, community outreach coordinator at Seedlings, and asked her to tell us about the organization and its current projects. Here is what we learned.

Seedlings Braille Books for Children serves blind children from birth to age 18 and blind adults who read to sighted children throughout the United States and in 54 countries around the world. Seedlings' goal is to help raise the literacy rate among children who are blind by providing access to literature that is available to their sighted peers because even with new technologies, braille books remain in limited supply and are costly.

Seedlings has experienced continual growth since its inception, answering the need to offer blind children the opportunity to read the same books easily available to sighted children. Less than 5 percent of material that is available in print is ever transcribed into braille. Seedlings' goal is to change that and make a difference in the blindness community. Over the past 15 years, Seedlings has recorded a 9.8 percent average growth in book production per year and the growth potential seems endless.

An ongoing project of Seedlings is to reach more visually impaired children in their preschool years in order to have a positive impact on pre-reading skills. Seedlings provides print and braille picture books for preschoolers facilitating early exposure to braille. Board books are a meaningful transition to literacy for blind children. By feeling the raised braille dots on the tactile page while parents read the book aloud, a blind child begins to associate the dots with wonderful stories and an enjoyable experience. This association leads to a desire to learn to read and an increased probability of braille literacy.

Seedlings' next level of books, print-and-braille, are great for beginning readers and allow parents to participate in the early reading process. Titles in the print-and-braille books category are available in both uncontracted and contracted braille formats.

Seedlings also offers traditional braille-only books in popular and classic literature for independent readers. Seedlings has recently introduced popular books in electronic format. E-Braille books are affordable and easy to download. Seedlings' books focus on children up to age 14, instilling literacy skills important to future success.

Seedlings sponsors many special projects and book give-away programs. The Rose Project offers free encyclopedia articles to any child who needs braille research material for reports and projects. Anna's Book Angel Project sends free books to children worldwide from wish lists they submit. Keep Kids in Touch currently provides free books for summer reading to students in seven states. In its fourth year, The Hooray for Braille program distributes kits free of charge to Michigan families of infants and preschoolers to help demystify braille and give families a head start in encouraging reading for visually impaired children.

Seedlings collaborates with numerous organizations, including ROPARD, The Association for Retinopathy of Prematurity and Related Diseases (www.ropard.org), providing "Hooray for Braille" kits, free of charge to the Children's Low Vision Resource Center, which provides free services to families of children who are blind or severely visually impaired. ROPARD assists families from around the world who seek treatment at Beaumont Hospital. Seedlings also partners with National Braille Press to distribute braille book bags through the ReadBooks! Program is available nationwide.

There is no disputing the fact that literacy skills are essential for children to succeed and become competent lifelong learners. A foundation for literacy and the love of reading is developed through early exposure to good books. Seedlings' history and passion to advocate for blind children and their families by providing a resource that increases literacy, independence and opportunity, makes this organization unique. Because of her unwavering commitment to blind children, Debra Bonde, Seedlings' director and founder, has enriched and changed thousands of lives by holding on to her dream of equal opportunity for literacy and ensuring access to quality books in braille.

In 1984 when Bonde founded Seedlings, braille materials were scarce and expensive. Her goals were to increase the availability and lower the cost of braille books for children in order to promote literacy and a love of reading. In 1985, the first year of book production, Bonde produced 221 books in her basement office. By 1990, Seedlings was producing 5,000 books per year, which precipitated its move out of the basement and into the Bentley Center in Livonia, Michigan, and eventually to its present location on Farmington Road in Livonia. Since its inception in 1984, with a small staff and loyal volunteers, Seedlings has produced more than 235,000 braille books and articles and is currently on track toward a goal to distribute 24,000 more in 2007.

During the past year, 80 new titles have been added to the catalog, creating the largest selection ever, with more than 800 titles available. Books are sold for about half of what it costs to produce them. The difference is made up with individual and corporate donations, foundation grants, philanthropic group support and proceeds from fundraising events. Seedlings receives no government or United Way funds.

For more information about Seedlings Braille Books for Children, visit  www.seedlings.org  or contact Julie Connoyer, Community Outreach Coordinator, 14151 Farmington Road, Livonia, MI 48154; Phone: 800-777-8552 or 734-427-8552; E-mail:  seedlink7@aol.com .

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