New London center for the blind seeks new home
New London — There were times during the coronavirus pandemic and after leaving its longtime home at the Martin Center on Broad Street that some wondered if the South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind would survive.
The center is a resource for the blind and visually impaired seeking to live an independent lifestyle but, perhaps more importantly, serves as a social outlet. Pandemic restrictions forced it to close down at a time when its more than 80 members probably needed the camaraderie the most.
Pandemic restrictions have now eased and members are trickling back in even as the center continues efforts to raise awareness about its mission of advocacy while searching for a new home. The group has served the blind and visually impaired for nearly 50 years and Executive Director Wendy Lusk said she wants to see it expand and flourish. The center was founded in 1972 by Marjorie Heath, a blind woman seeking to make social and recreational opportunities available to the blind and visually impaired.
The group was forced to find a new location with the city's sale of the Martin Center in 2019. With help of city officials, the group found a basement space at the Miracle Temple Church at 45 Broad St. But it was always supposed to be temporary.
The rent is cheap at $500 per month but Lusk said the group wants better. Some of the requirements of a new spot is that it is a bit larger, on the bus line, is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and is more easily accessible.
“I feel like we’re in limbo but there’s got to be somebody out there to help us out,” she said. “We’ve been in business for 50 years; it's not like we’re a fly-by-night organization.”
The group also wants to stay in New London, in part because it would otherwise miss out on an important $10,000 grant from the Frank Loomis Palmer Foundation. The foundation is one of several major donors that have allowed the group to survive. Others include the Eugene & Margaret Blackford Foundation and Electric Boat.
There are an estimated 600 visually impaired or blind individuals New London County, and many of them seek ways to become independent or maintain their independence.
Lusk, who is not visually impaired, said one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is the visually impaired can be more isolated without an outlet.
“We’ve learned through COVID that blind people need to touch,” she said. “Social distancing during COVID was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do.”
But the group is again opening its doors to members and this past week held a Lunch and Learn gathering with the new mobility and orientation instructor with the state Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind. BESBE helps to coordinate resources and makes referrals.
There was also a recent meeting where members were introduced to a new technology called OrCam, a wearable device that reads texts and has facial recognition. Along with keeping tabs on the latest technologies, the center offers transportation and has a variety of magnifiers and special computers to allow someone to read things like a magazine.
Seeking to maintain her independence, Tammy Paradis said she got involved in with the group in 2014. A mother of three, Paradis found out when she was 30 years old that she would progressively go blind. She is also deaf. She didn’t know how long it would take or what her future held, but said she was raised to advocate for herself.
She went to school at the Helen Keller National Center for Deafblind Youth & Adults in preparation.
“I am the type of person that wants to get into everything and advocate for myself and others. I know I don’t like how it feels to be isolated,” Paradis said. “I don’t like how it feels to walk around with a cane. It doesn’t feel good and it’s nice to come here and have a conversation with people who know how I feel.”
Paradis showed off some of the magnifiers and special computers to allow legally blind individuals to read magazines and books, one of which is similar to a iPad that, when scrolled over printed words, magnifies with an option to change contrast for easier reading.
She said it is a place where one can find comfort with others with shared experiences. They also can laugh together when someone at the center asks “where is the computer?” and someone else answers “over there” — a response that is not funny if it comes from a sighted person.
“The relationships you build here ... you are able to feel comfortable,” she said.
For more information about the South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind Inc., visit centeroftheblind.com.