Center for the blind director ready to address growing need

By Andrew Kirk

As Tri-City baby boomers age, the number finding themselves losing vision is expected to balloon.

One in six Americans develop a visual impairment after age 70, according to National Center for Health Statistics. It’s a scary statistic people do their best to ignore, said Paul Shane, the new executive director at Edith Bishel Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Kennewick.

In his view, it would be wise to prepare for visual impairment now.

Formerly chief executive officer of the California Council of the Blind, Shane, who joined the Edith Bishel Center in May, said the center’s potential impact in Southeast Washington excites him. He has 25 years of experience working in social services with 12 as an executive director, and holds a master’s in nonprofit administration.

Started in 1988 by families and physicians wanting more resources for retirement-age residents with vision impairment, the program found a home when Edith Bishel donated land and funding to build a facility across from Kamiakin High School.

Today the center offers services for people of all ages in Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Columbia and Klickitat counties.

The center offers programs for young people, too. It offers pre-employment transition workshops for students, one-on-one computer mentoring and support training for parents and siblings.

Shane said his background running a YMCA and center for at-risk teens east of Sacramento will be an asset in expanding those programs.

But it is Southeast Washington’s growing elderly population that presents the Edith Bishel Center a real opportunity to make a difference, Shane said.

Shane said he often is introduced during community functions as someone helping “those blind people,” as if it is a small population of “others.” In reality, he said, the majority of people will become visually impaired or have a close relative who will.

And if the country doesn’t curb its childhood obesity epidemic, the problem will only get worse, he added. Obesity increases rates of diabetes, which causes diabetic retinopathy, one of the fastest-growing causes of vision problems in the U.S., he said.

“No one wants to think about it, but they’re going to need our services at some point in their lives. Right now we’re the only provider in a six-county region. We’re a grassroots provider and we struggle to keep the lights on day to day,” he said.

The center operates on a $250,000 annual budget and employs three people.

Shane has hit the ground running. He’s already secured a grant to bring two AmeriCorps volunteers to the center to assist the two staff members. He’s also booked a well-known blind comedian to perform at the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser in September.

His No. 1 goal for 2019 is securing more diverse funding for the center’s most impactful service: teaching people who become blind or impaired how to live independently and possibly return to the workforce.

A state grant currently funds this work across the six counties, but government funding goes up and down. Plus, only a fraction of the people who qualify for the center’s services are accessing them, Shane said. Increased funding would help volunteers and physicians reach more people—and it is an essential service for those who need it, he said.

“In my experience in California, when a person loses sight it takes five to 15 years to reclaim your life on a psychological level,” he said. “You have to come to terms with who you are now, what you want and how you’re going to get there.”

Dr. Mark Michael, president of the center’s board of directors, said in 40 years of practice in the Tri-Cities, he’s seen people become isolated after developing vision problems.

“They lose their sense of worth. They think their life is over. We just want to prevent that kind of scenario from happening to anyone,” he said. “We do that currently without regard for their ability to pay.”

Michael said the new executive director will be an asset to the center. “I am excited to have Paul Shane as the Edith Bishel Center’s new executive director,” he said. “His passion for the blind and low-vision population will help us to expand the center’s services, improve the center’s sustainability and to position the Edith Bishel Center as the premier center for serving the blind and low-vision population here in Southeast Washington state.”

Additional funding could allow the nonprofit to expand its existing youth offerings as well, Shane said.

Shane said he learned while working with at-risk youth that all youth are at risk in some way. All children are vulnerable if they decide to handle challenges in a negative way.

“Throw blindness in in some way and it impacts the degree of risk that youth is experiencing,” he said.

More community partners also would help introduce businesses to how capable those with blindness or vision impairment really are.

In California, Shane said his clients battled a stigma with employers assuming what they could or couldn’t do without giving them a chance to prove themselves. In other scenarios, capable workers were kept at entry-level positions long after they proved their worth because the employer viewed them as a charity case.

Vanessa Pruitt of Kennewick uses the center often to get help with technology that allows her to use a computer.

“(The center) provides a valuable contribution by enhancing the abilities and lives of its blind members and partakes in essential work in our community,” she said.

Dinner in the Dark fundraiser

Comedian Tommy Edison is headlining the Center’s annual fundraiser in September. He pokes fun at stigmas and challenges people’s assumptions about the blind in a hilarious manner.

The Sept. 28 fundraiser at the Pasco Red Lion Hotel and Conference Center, “Dinner in the Dark,” invites attendees to enjoy a meal and the evening’s entertainment while wearing a blindfold.

Aside from the state grant to fund independent living services and several small grants, “Dinner in the Dark” is the center’s primary funding.

This year’s event will feature a VIP mingle before dinner at 6 p.m. allowing attendees to meet Edison and KNDU TV guest emcees anchor Melanie Carter and meteorologist Monty Webb.

An online auction will be open prior to the event and a traditional silent auction will be held during the event. Dancing and drinks will be offered.

Cost is $50 for adults, $22 for children 10 and under. To buy tickets, call the center at 509-735-0699.

The Edith Bishel Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired:628 N. Arthur St., Kennewick, 509-735-0699; edithbishelcenter.org. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday.

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