Three inspiring blind students of the Braille Institute Santa Barbara shared some of the challenges they face and how the organization has helped them at a recent special meeting of the Braille Auxiliary.

The center, at 2031 De la Vina St., is part of the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization with five centers and 220 community outreach locations in Southern California that provides classes, programs and services to the blind and visually impaired, all free of charge. The Braille Institute is funded almost entirely from private sources.

The Braille Auxiliary is a group of volunteers who raise funds, provide community outreach and help out at the Braille Institute.

The first speaker was Adelaide Ortega, a native of Santa Barbara, who lost her vision many years ago at age 39.

She shared how she was initially depressed and angry and refused to even visit the Braille Institute. Her family finally persuaded her to do so and now she declares that the Braille Institute “saved my life.”

She was surprised to find that the students were bright, happy, interesting people leading productive lives thanks in significant part to the assistance provided by the Braille Institute.

Before losing her vision, she had never done any ceramics work. At the Braille Institute, she enrolled in a ceramics class and discovered she had a passion and talent for it and is now a ceramics instructor at the institute.

She also began playing golf after losing her sight, and nows plays every week. Last year she participated in a tournament at St. Andrews Golf Club in Scotland.

Leonardo Medina, a 34-year-old man living in Oxnard, totally lost his vision at age 20. He related how he was skeptical at first about coming to the Braille Institute, but that it has been “a life-changing experience.”

He extolled the “excellent programs and staff” and appreciates how “staff will do whatever research they need to do to answer your questions.” He shared how he never stops trying to learn and adapt and really wants to help others do the same.

Also sharing her story was Meghan Downing, 14, who started losing her vision at age 9.

Braille Institute

Braille Auxiliary board member Sally Faulstich, left, Auxiliary board president Mary Romo, and Auxiliary members Judy Mack and Janet Lew. (Gail Arnold / Noozhawk photo)

She related how much she has enjoyed youth outings run by the Braille Institute, including ski trips, and how much she has benefited from classes at the Braille Institute.

All three speakers had a positive spirit, a strong quest for learning and a real passion for living. Each also expressed tremendous gratitude for the many ways the Braille Institute has enriched their lives.

From the extended applause, it was clear that the large audience of Auxiliary members and guests were very appreciative that these individuals shared their experiences.

According to Executive Director Michael Lazarovits, it is quite common for people who lose their vision to be reluctant about coming to the Braille Institute because of denial or for other reasons.

Once they are open to receiving assistance, however, the Braille Institute offers a full range classes, programs and services. There are spring, fall and winter class terms. This spring, 60 courses are being offered in technology and communication, emotional support, the business of living, art, health and fitness, recreation, lecture/discussion and music. A few classes are offered in Spanish.

Many of the students at the Braille Institute are older — the average age is 76 — and the majority have some vision remaining.

Transportation is provided free of charge to anyone residing between Goleta and Carpinteria wishing to attend classes. The center serves people in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

During a tour of the facility led by Lazarovits, an instructor in the recently constructed, state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, he explained how the classes teach how to safely use kitchen appliances and how to prepare nutritious meals. Students learn tips such as how to gauge the warmth of the gas on the stove by the noise level emitted.

Braille Institute

Braille Institute instructor and student Adelaide Ortega with her guide dog, Betty. (Gail Arnold / Noozhawk photo)

Nate Streeper, the library coordinator, explained to Noozhawk that the Braille Institute helps students access materials in digital cartridge, cassette tape and Braille forms.

The Braille Institute is part of the National Library Service, a network coordinated by the Library of Congress that makes these materials available free of charge, including shipping both ways. There are currently 644,000 volumes in the collection, with many more older titles available upon request. Patrons can have up to 30 titles checked out at once.

Of increasing popularity is the NLS’s service of free audio downloads from the Internet. Currently, about 57,000 titles are available, with more than 200 new titles being added each month. Additionally, the Braille Institute has more than 5,000 audio books on site.

The Braille Institute assists students with a wide range of adaptive technology. Video magnifiers (or CCTVs) consist of a video camera connected to a monitor. Written materials are placed under the camera and an enlarged image is displayed on the monitor.

Speech synthesizer software converts text on a computer screen into audio. Magnification software enlarges text to a range of sizes.

On smartphones and computers, Intelligent Personal Assistants, such as Siri, allow users to compose text messages, perform basic web searches and tap into apps by speaking to the device and having the device respond in kind.

Software such as Dragon Dictate enables users to compose emails and documents by dictation. Many other types of software provide audible navigation for various devices.

While many of the students are older, the Braille Institute does have an active Youth and Teen Program serving those ages 6 to 18. It covers daily living skills, socialization and academics. It also has a Child Development Program that helps families of newborns adapt to raising a blind or visually impaired child.

The Braille Institute has about 325 regular, active volunteers who function as drivers, teachers, classroom aides and library aides. Volunteers also perform clerical and reception duties and help spread the word in the community about the Braille Institute.

Currently, the Braille Institute is in need of volunteer drivers (vehicle provided), teachers’ aides and people to do clerical work.

The Braille Auxiliary holds an annual major fundraising event. This year, its Festival of Flavors featuring several local restaurants will be held at the Braille Institute on Sept. 25.

The Auxiliary also hosts smaller gatherings throughout the year. For more information about the Auxiliary, call board president Mary Romo at 805.682.7407.

Click here for more information about the Braille Institute Santa Barbara, or call 805.682.6222. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Gail Arnold can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Braille Institute

Braille Auxiliary board members, from left, Jean Von Wittenburg, Carol Wenzlau, Diane Pannkuk and Sandy DeRousse. (Gail Arnold / Noozhawk photo)