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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Center of the Blind meeting membership’s needs at Granite Street location

    Kevin Harkins uses a brailler to take notes Wednesday, June 21, 2023, while following instructions on how to use voice-over technology on their phone or other devices during a support group at South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Tammy Paradis, left, uses a zoom magnifier Wednesday, June 21, 2023, while following instructions on how to use voice-over technology on their phone or other devices during a support group at South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Computer with large print on the keyboard , left. and a computer with a camera attached that shows text in large print on the screen Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Tammy Paradis, left, uses a zoom magnifier Wednesday, June 21, 2023, while following instructions on how to use voice-over technology on their phone or other devices during a support group at South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London ― It’s a retail outlet, a virtual library, a social hub and, most important, a beacon of hope.

    Its enemy is darkness.

    Founded 51 years ago, the South East Connecticut Community Center of the Blind ― still the only nonprofit serving the blind in Connecticut ― has spent the last year settling into new quarters at 75R Granite St., a location that’s “clean, big and bright,” in the words of Wendy Lusk, the center’s 72-year-old executive director.

    Lusk said the location is a major improvement over the basement space the center occupied for two years at Miracle Temple Church on Broad Street. The center had moved there after the city’s 2019 sale of the Martin Center, which had been its longtime home.

    With the Center of the Blind facing an uncertain future, Lusk took over as executive director on Jan. 1, 2020, a couple of months before COVID-19 forced it to close. When it reopened that August, its members were reluctant to return.

    “The blind’s second sense is touch and everyone was saying don’t touch anything,” Lusk said.

    The sighted Lusk, who retired in 2019 after 21 years in the credit department at Mohegan Sun, served the Center of the Blind as a volunteer for 30 years before becoming executive director. She is the nonprofit’s only paid employee.

    Lusk described Tammy Paradis, 62, secretary of the center’s 11-member board of directors, as “my right ― and left ― hand.”

    Diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disease, Paradis was born partially deaf and started experiencing impaired vision as a teenager. She produces the center’s newsletter, “The Insight Scoop,” and plans such regular events as “Lunch and Learn” sessions that often feature speakers.

    The center’s membership numbers nearly 140 people, most of them 50 and older, the oldest 101. About a dozen are completely blind. Many are sighted, including those who serve as volunteers and relatives of the blind and visually impaired. They live throughout the United States, including California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and Utah.

    The center’s funding comes from members’ $25 annual dues, grants and donations.

    Lusk said the center has become “more professional” over the years.

    “We’re not just a social club anymore,” she said. “We’re more involved in the community, with chambers of commerce and senior centers. We’re getting involved with Rotary clubs, we’re getting into doctor’s offices. … For the longest time, nobody had heard of us.”

    The center, whose stated mission is to help the region’s blind and visually impaired attain and maintain an independent lifestyle, strives to stay on top of the latest in assistive technology and sells aids and devices in its retail store. The objective, Lusk said, is to give members the opportunity to try out items before purchasing them.

    The center obtained a grant to stock the store and uses the proceeds from sales to restock it. No profit is generated.

    Items on the shelves include bold-lined paper; templates for addressing envelopes; objects that “talk,” including alarms, clocks and thermometers; and magnifying equipment. The most popular item, Lusk said, are “bump dots” that can be applied to remote controls, microwaves and other devices that respond to touch.

    The center’s community room has special computers equipped with magnifiers and software that converts text into speech.

    Paradis said members come into the center to use the devices to read their mail, complete course work or “Google.” The center will loan or lease equipment to a member who needs to use it at home.

    For many members whose vision deteriorated gradually and who never learned Braille, mobile phones with features like “Siri,” Apple’s voice assistant, have been a boon, Paradis said.

    For all its newfound focus on assistive technology, the Center of the Blind remains committed to its members’ social needs. While some members interact with the center remotely, many take advantage of the “Lunch and Learn” sessions and “Friday Night Funnies,” a virtual version of the Trivial Pursuit game. About 30 members typically participate in monthly dinners the center hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 189 in New London or a local restaurant.

    A grant from the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut recently enabled the center to add a kitchen sink to a break room equipped with a microwave and a refrigerator.

    Recently, eight members took in a minor league baseball game at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, where they relied on the announcer’s voice and Paradis’s enlarged pictures of the scoreboard to track the action. Other excursions have included lighthouse cruises, apple-picking, bowling and a visit to a farmer’s market.

    The center’s volunteers provide transportation.

    “We want them to be socialized, not shut in,” Lusk said of the center’s members. “After COVID, it took a while for them to come back. … We give them hope. Many didn’t know what to expect when they found out they were going blind. By ‘seeing’ what we have here, they have hope. They don’t have to live in darkness.”

    Paradis, proud that this month’s center newsletter is the first accompanied by an audio version, said her message to members is to be proactive in dealing with their disability. That’s the approach she took in preparing for her future when her eyesight began to deteriorate.

    “Don’t sit there,” she said. “It’s not going to come to you.”

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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