Mac Coates, 71, sits while performing weekly Tai chi exercises he is instructed to perform over a Zoom call arranged through the Lions Center for the Visually Impaired in Pittsburg, Calif., on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)


Lions Center helps people regain the independence they lost when their eyesight dimmed

Field trips might include cherry picking in local orchards or archery, shooting at targets using arrows with suction cups on the tips

Bay Area News Group

Published November 2021

Note: This story is from our 2021 campaign and has been fulfilled, but you can still donate to the Share the Spirit general fund.

Navigating a sighted world with a white cane is a bitter life for some.

But not Mac Coates.

His cheerfulness is infectious despite a genetic eye disease that robbed him of his sight as a young man, leaving him in permanent darkness.

“I’m happy because I’ve learned how to use my independent living skills. I’m glad I can do things for myself,” said the 71-year-old Pittsburg resident.

Coates was in his late 20s when the gradual loss of peripheral vision forced him out of his job as a fry cook because he had earned a reputation for being accident-prone.

He turned to the state Department of Rehabilitation for help, which taught him how to find his way around with a cane and sent him to community college. Coates found work as a substitute special education teacher, and eventually earned a four-year college degree.

When he moved to Pittsburg in 2008 and reached out again to the state to find an organization that offered social activities for the blind, Coates was referred to the Lions Center for the Visually Impaired.

During his tour of the Pittsburg facility he stopped by an exercise class, an arts and crafts session, and a course whimsically named “Cooking Without Looking.”

Coates was sold.

“I wanted a part of it,” he said.

Over the years Coates has taken field trips around East County with other Lions Center clients — visiting a Brentwood ranch for a picnic and hayrides, Contra Loma Regional Park and Delta Bowl in Antioch, and the county fair where 4-H club members introduced the group to the animals on display. Participants have gone cherry picking in local orchards and once even tried their hand at archery, shooting at targets using arrows with suction cups on the tips.

The Lions Center for the Visually Impaired primarily serves Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano residents, the vast majority of whom are 55 or older and low-income.

The agency has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The Pittsburg organization will use its grant to help provide diagnostic and early intervention services, help with independent living, group classes and other programs.

During the 2019-20 fiscal year, 1,735 clients took advantage of the practical help the organization offers, which includes free eyeglasses for those with mild vision loss as well as screenings at nursing homes and senior centers. Along with the exams, participants can get on-the-spot diagnoses of disorders such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts.

Employees will visit homes to reconfigure the space so that clients are less likely to bump into furniture. They also might apply raised buttons to flat surfaces like the number pad of a microwave or landline so clients can use those appliances more easily, and sometimes show people how to cook without burning themselves.

Coates’ mentors helped him find the stairwell exit in his apartment building along with the elevators and dining hall right after he moved in.

“It’s really about customizing (services) to what the needs are,” said Executive Director Yolanda Braxton.

Transportation aid might mean researching bus routes on behalf of a client, showing someone how to use the Lyft and Uber phone apps, or offering training on how to use a cane.

The Lions Center also has a lending library where clients can borrow audiobooks and CCTV magnifiers, devices that enable users to continue enjoying hobbies like reading, crossword puzzles and needlepoint by enlarging the activities on a screen.

And what it doesn’t provide, it can put clients in touch with organizations that do, whether it’s service dogs, home delivery of meals, someone to feed and walk a pet, or psychological counseling.

For Coates, the nonprofit is also a hub of friendship.

Each week he calls into the 90-minute activities and events group, which includes a session of stretching or Tai Chi followed by topics such as how to find housing for the disabled. He also participates in weekly support sessions where attendees discuss concerns surrounding their loss of sight in a compassionate setting and bounce ideas off each other.

“It means the world to me,” he said of these chances to socialize.

He has served on Lions Center’s board of directors for years, and Coates has assumed the unofficial role of cheerleader for those who recently have lost their sight.

He welcomes new clients with an empathetic ear, learning about their story and encouraging those who perhaps had to quit jobs they enjoyed and now feel a lack of purpose.

“A lot of them are not positive, some of them are bitter,” Coates said. “I let them know there’s life after blindness. I can relate to people with similar problems. I encourage them to take independent living skills training… to get involved in something that will get them out of the house.”

Dennis Deschler is one of those who finally gave up his work as a counselor to the disabled in August 2017 after multiple surgeries failed to correct detached retinas in both eyes.

After moving to Brentwood two years ago, the 63-year-old contacted the Lions Center looking for companionship among those who would understand his life experiences.

“I wanted to be part of the blind society. I wanted to be with people (who) can relate to me. It’s just more comfortable,” Deschler said.

He does exactly that at the virtual group meetings he attends on Tuesdays, where participants might do breathing exercises or meditation and play music trivia games.

“Once a week it’s my time with people like me,” Deschler said.

How to help

Donations will help Lions Center for the Visually Impaired offer vision services to older adults, group classes and activities for those with reduced vision and early detection exams for eye diseases.

Goal: $10,000

Note: This story was fulfilled, but you can still donate to the general fund

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