VHAV December 22n 2010

LA Daily News: Fundraising campaign eyes $75K for survival of Van Nuys School for the Blind


FACING CLOSURE - Fundraising campaign eyes $75K for survival of Van Nuys School for the Blind


By Bob Strauss, Staff Writer

Posted: 12/22/2010 07:50:11 PM PST

The Van Nuys School for the Blind may be facing its end.  But the folks who run the facility - which provides classes, assistance and, perhaps most crucially, a social outlet for the city's visually impaired and others in need - won't be going down without a fight.

The school, also known as the Visually Handicapped Adults of the Valley program, will launch a campaign this weekend in the hope of raising $75,000 to keep its doors open past Dec. 31.




Helen Harris, 73, is the founder of Retinitis Pigmentosa International, a charity that is committed to focusing attention on eye problems and to promote research, public awareness, education and human services for victims of degenerative eye diseases. (Dean Musgrove/Staff Photographer)




Students, staff and supporters of the Van Nuys School for the Blind gather recently an annual holiday party. (Photo by Heather Burgett)

"The students loved it, the volunteers loved it, the people who came in to help loved it," said Helen Harris, the school's president, who also heads the nonprofit RP International, which raises money to fight disabling eye diseases. "It was amazing - the mix, and how it helped people."

Funding for the 38-year-old institution has been dwindling for some time, with a drop in donations and recession-era government cutbacks taking their toll.

Without a bailout, the Sherman Way facility will be shut down and "100 people will not know what to do with 365 days a year of living in darkness," said Harris, 74, who developed retinitis pigmentosa at age 5 and went completely blind in her early 40s.

The school is seeking donations at 800-344-4877 and

www.rpinternational.org. Several appeals also will be made during the broadcast of holiday TV shows.

NBC's airing of "It's a Wonderful Life" - for which former President George H.W. Bush recorded a simulcast audio description of images for the visually impaired (press the SAP button on your remote to hear it) will feature PSAs during its Friday night run, starting at 8 p.m.

And at 6 a.m. Saturday, Southern California viewers can catch "The Eyes of Christmas" on Ion Television. The 30-minute special will feature recorded holiday messages from Bush and such celebrities as Garth Brooks, Sandra Bullock, Natalie Cole, Bob Costas, Celine Dion, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman and Reba McIntyre.

Half of the donations will go to the school and half to RP International, said Harris, who estimated that only $4,500 of the $75,000 the school needs has been pledged so far.

The school, which primarily caters to older, sight-impaired individuals as well as some younger students with learning disabilities, conducts classes in ceramics, fiber arts such as macrame, Braille and white cane use, among others.

"I liked doing the arts and crafts, fiber arts and ceramics," said Caroline Spencer, 77, of Northridge, who lost her eyesight at age 39. "Everything is done by touch."

Although the school's closing wouldn't be calamitous for the self- described active senior, Spencer would still miss the classes she's attended for 15 years - and feels it would be a much deeper loss for some of her fellow students.

"It's good for people who don't get out like I do," she said. "Many just come there for socializing, and seniors who have visual impairment need to socialize."

Most of the school's teachers work through Los Angeles Unified's adult education program - which, like everything else in the sprawling school district, is facing its own devastating budget cuts.

"They need individual help, they can't just be in the room by themselves," said Maud Aretz, who works at Van Nuys Community Adult School and has taught fiber arts at the School for the Blind for two years. "So once the teachers are gone, I guess the program is gone.

"I've really seen a lot of growth in the people who have been in the program," Aretz continued. "Some don't realize how vital it is for these people to get together and to network with one another. They share technology, lots of good things. And their self-esteem ... when they finish a project and they give it away to someone, they feel really good."