Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Columbia Lighthouse serves as beacon for the blind

Nonprofit expands into Silver Spring with new facility on Georgia Avenue

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After months of renovation, the Columbia Lighthouse for Blind will formally open its new facility in Silver Spring on Sept. 17 to fill a need for a more accessible location for the D.C. area's blind and visually impaired population who use its services.

The CLB branch in Silver Spring, located on Georgia Avenue near the Silver Spring Metro station, offers convenience for Montgomery County's 15,000 blind and visually impaired residents, according to Kim Alfonso, CLB vice president of business development.

"Our goal is really to increase the number of people that we're serving and increase the number of people employed," Alfonso said.

"When [the Silver Spring location] came about, we jumped on it," said Alfonso, who noted that the CLB's two other locations are not as Metro-accessible as the Silver Spring facility.

The expansion, however, proved to be a work in progress. Although the new center opened last year, it needed substantial renovation, meaning that some of the center's services were not fully available until recently.

Like the CLB's locations in Riverdale and Northwest D.C., the Silver Spring branch offers job training and placement. It also employs the blind and visually impaired. Alfonso said one of the organization's new ventures is data scanning, a process that converts print materials into digital format.

"We wanted to have much more of a chance to make a difference where we're in control of our success, Alfonso said. "Our goal is that we will have 75 percent of our people onsite who are visually impaired or blind."

Besides providing jobs directly through the CLB, the organization also assists its patrons in finding employment through outside sources. Those jobs focus primarily on mailroom services, switchboard operation and administrative and clerical support. The CLB has a partnership with Andrews Air Force Base to run the base's switchboard. They also work in the mailrooms of the IRS and U.S. State Department.

Arthur Hawkins, a patron of the CLB since 1984 who recently started attending the Silver Spring location, expressed his appreciation for the nonprofit organization.

"[The CLB is] home, pretty much," said Hawkins, 53. "Someone is always there for me. If I need assistance with certain things there's always someone there to reach out.

"It's hard to find someone who is concerned enough and cares."

According to the National Industries for the Blind, seven out of 10 blind Americans are unemployed.

"The biggest obstacles facing people who are blind in finding employment are public misconceptions," CEO of NIB Kevin Lynch said in an e-mail. "Only three in 10 people who are blind have found employment, oftentimes because those are the people who were given the opportunity to be successful.

"We have agencies that are led by men and women who are blind. The governor of New York is blind. They use the same programs, the same computers, as executives and politicians who are sighted — they just might use a screen reader or other adaptable tools and technology. But that doesn't make them any less effective in their roles."

Lynch noted that creative thinking among employers is the key to bringing more blind individuals into the workplace.

"Truly, this is a world in which we can no longer deceive ourselves into thinking that there is only one way to do something," Lynch said. "Once employers accept that truth, this unacceptable unemployment statistic will begin to change.