Kellie Robison knew when just a youngster that she was going blind.
The 62-year-old Oakley woman was born sighted, but it soon became apparent, even as an infant, that she couldn’t see well. Her sister, six years her senior, was born with the same vision-robbing disease, and their mother knew the signs to look out for.
In some ways, Robison says, she was lucky. Although her vision deteriorated with alarming rapidity as she approached her teen years, she was able to start preparing for a life of blindness, largely through the assistance of the Lions Club, and the Lions Center for the Visually Impaired, a 70-year-old nonprofit based in Pittsburg and serving clients in Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano counties.
“I’ve had a relationship with Lions for years, probably starting when I was a preteen,” Robison says. “The doctors told my mother to have me start learning Braille before I lost my vision. The Lions had a Braille section at the Oakland library where I’d check out Braille books. Their selection was better than what the school library had.”
The Lions Center hopes to raise $14,000 through the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit program, which provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The money will help support 250 seniors through its three lines of assistance to those 55 and older who are blind, are experiencing vision loss or who are at risk of losing their sight.
”Whether they were born with vision loss or acquired it,” Yolanda Braxton, executive director of the Center, says, “it doesn’t really matter. We make sure they are supported, and make sure they have the best quality of life.”
The center’s origins are modest, but their goals have always been high. The Center began with volunteers looking for ways to provide assistance to blind and visually impaired people. The California Lions District 4 C-3 eventually purchased property in Pittsburg, built the center, hired professional staff and expanded its reach. The District continues to support the Center, although it is operated as an independent nonprofit.
The services provided are wide-ranging, Braxton says, and divided into three lines of assistance. The first line is in-home aids. The Center’s trained staff visit the home and look at what’s available and what the client might need. Do they need a white cane and training on how to use it? Is the home organized in a way that improves mobility? Do they need access to transportation?
The second line, Braxton says, involves socialization. Disabilities can lead to isolation and loneliness, so the Center provides activities that bring people together. Classes are offered at the Center every Tuesday. They cover a range of topics as well as social gatherings. Excursions are scheduled once a month.
The third line focuses on vision and case management. Center staff organize vision screening at senior facilities and housing to look for vision loss and other issues. If the client requires additional care from an ophthalmologist or optometrist, vouchers to cover office visits are provided.
“Ninety-five percent of our clients are low or very low income,” Braxton says, “and are trying to manage a lot of issues. They’re the same issues others have, but they have the added difficulty of trying to manage them with vision loss.”
Robison, who is married and has three children, now adults, ran her own business for 40 years, doing massage therapy. Once she learned the layout of a new building or location, she could manage well with her cane, but the initial learning wasn’t easy. She needed someone to show her the ropes, and explain them in a language that a non-sighted person could understand.
Her husband was willing to help her, Robison says, but he described things a sighted person would emphasize, and it wasn’t as helpful to her as she needed. The Center provided her with mobility instructors.
“A regular sighted person couldn’t teach me how to maneuver around a situation,” Robison says. “All my mobility instructor has to say is one little thing and I can pull the whole puzzle together. It’s just baffling how that works. It’s amazing how that works.”
The Center has provided Robison with several instructors over the years, including one that taught her to walk from her home to the nearby chiropractor’s office where she worked doing massage therapy.
Robison quickly learned the layout of the office, and as she was the only other employee, she didn’t have any issues. However, after her retirement, she began giving chair massages once a month at a large manufacturing plant and offices in Pittsburg.
She once again contacted the Center for a mobility instructor, who helped her learn the lay of the land and, Robison says, she’s now confident moving around the area.
So many issues arise around vision loss, but Robison says one of the strangest she encountered was when she and her family moved to Oakley almost 40 years ago. They were boarding their horse at an area stable, but for some reason, Robison couldn’t get her bearings in the deep sand.
“The sand was crazy,” Robison says. “I just couldn’t maneuver around the stable.”
Her instructor sorted it out for her, and Robison says she thinks the instructor had fun that day, too, riding horses with her and her children.
The Center has a core clientele of 410 people, but each year serves another 1,500 through programs and information.
“It’s amazing how many people have been supported and cared for,” Braxton says, “and after 70 years we’re still staying true to our cause. It’s exciting to know no one has to experience vision loss alone, but to me, it still feels like we’re the best kept secret.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Lions Center for the Visually Impaired support its three lines of assistance to those 55 and older who are blind, are experiencing vision loss or who are at risk of losing their sight. Goal: $14,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.