By Steve Sears
Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey (VLANJ) has always been ahead of its time.
“If you see some of our program participants, they can do so much,” says Jennifer Singer, Director of Development of the 501c3 since March 2019.
The key mission of VLANJ is (per their website) “to empower individuals who are blind or low vision. We do this by providing support, education, skills training, assistive technology and employment opportunities for people of all ages.” VLANJ is the only day program of its kind for people with profound vision loss and blindness in the Garden State.
The 78-year story starts humbly in the city of Newark. In 1943, individuals met in a basement to address bias against people who were suffering blindness or profound vision loss. The New Jersey Association for the Blind was formed at that time, and in Denville, New Jersey’s first summer residential camp to offer respite for blind women was founded. The camp soon expanded offerings to provide life-skills training to aid those in attendance to live more independently. Thereafter, developing essential skills became a focus, and VLANJ focused on teaching those skills, in addition to year-round health and wellness activities.
2020 has been a challenge, but per Singer, VLANJ rose to meet those challenges. “When the pandemic hit in March,” she says, “we closed up for the safety of all of our students and staff. Within two weeks, we were able to pivot quickly to providing virtual classes to our students.” It started small but has grown. “We’re very proud we were very quickly able to take the need of services and be able to provide them in a virtual way so that all of our program participants could stay virtually connected.” Singer also mentions that there is a virtual social hour on Fridays, where students can chat and give each other guidance and support. “It’s really nice as well.”
VLANJ’s “Dining in the Dark” annual fundraiser – this year called “VLANJ Goes Virtual: A Dining in the Dark Experience,” was held on October 29th. “We made the decision in June to change it to a virtual event,” says Singer. The program’s purpose was to allow viewers the experience of walking in someone’s shoes who are blind or have low vision. The event, available for viewing on You Tube, takes the viewer through four different events. The first, cooking and dining, shows how to safely navigate a kitchen, and as well how to eat out and eat in; a technology segment, showing how technology can be used by those with failing or no eyesight; an orientation and mobility segment, explaining and displaying how important orientation and mobility is to someone who is blind; and finally, a portion regarding low vision rehabilitation therapy. Also, students offered tips for viewers on how to properly announce themselves to blind or low vision people when entering a room, and how to let them know when you are leaving as well.
VLANJ in October launched “Lift” (Living Independently for Tomorrow), a four-week virtual program that teaches adaptive skills and strategies for those adjusting to vision loss, as well as their families.
VLANJ is located at 155 Morris Avenue, Suite 2, in Denville, and also offers select programs in its Ridgewood location. Call (973) 627-0055 or visit www.vlanj.org.