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For more information about sight loss contact the Earle Baum Center:

Phone: 707-523-3222

Email: ebc@earlebaum.org

Info: Click here for the website.

Up for discussion at this session of a first-Monday-of-the-month book club was Rhoda Janzen’s 2009 “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.” Not all of the 15 members seated in a circle read the book, you might say, with the same eyes.

“I loved it!” Jan Seeley exuded from beneath a purple hat. “It just brought me out of the doldrums — I actually read it twice because I wanted to laugh.”

Seated right next to Seeley was friend and club co-founder Jean Lake, who announced, “This is what makes a horse race.” She referred to the phenomenon of one person’s favorite horse being another’s least favorite.

Lake shared that one of the club’s recent titles, the 2016 “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, was easily one of the greatest books she has ever read.

“And I thought ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ was the dumbest!”

On at least one point, everyone in this club agrees: It is fantastic that one’s love of books needn’t be seriously impeded by an inability to see the words on a page or a screen.

Though these lovers of literature call it reading, in fact they listen to books.

Everyone in the circle inside the classroom at the Earle Baum Center just west of Santa Rosa is blind or has lost too much vision to be able to read. There were several white canes in the room during the May meeting, and three guide dogs.

A few of the book-club members have been blind all their lives and have accessed written materials only through Braille or the assistance of someone who reads the words out loud, or into a recorder. All the others were once able to see and have had to adjust to losing much or all of their vision to causes that include glaucoma, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

An avid reader all her life, club co-founder Lake, a retired teacher, said that as her sight deteriorated from glaucoma “I was really lost for a while.”

Then she learned about the free talking-book program of the federally funded National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. It allows qualified people to download audible books to their personal computers, tablets or smartphones, or receive them on a recording cartridge that can be played on a machine that also is provided to vision-impaired people at no cost.

Jan Seeley, along with Lake and Nancy Turner a co-founder of the Earle Baum Center book club, said the audible book service is invaluable. “We get a lot of brand new books,” she said.

To be able to access books electronically, easily and at no cost, she added, “has opened up our world.”

Lake said she’s hoping Congress won’t cut funding to the National Library Service program. “It means a lot to a lot of people,” she said.

The book club that started three years ago with just Lake, Seeley and Turner is one of many life-enhancing attractions of the nonprofit center for the visually impaired that occupies what was formerly the Occidental Road farm of Earle Baum.

Blinded as an adult by retinitis pigmentosa, Baum didn’t let the disability stop him from farming his land. When he died in 1986 at the age of 90, he left his property and his life savings of $130,000 for the benefit of people with little or no sight.

Community partners created the Earle Baum Center, which opened in 1999 and offers assistance, training and support to people who were born without eyesight or have lost it, or whose vision is in decline.

Seeley is also a volunteer for the center and works with some of the people who come in because they are losing their sight and anxious about possibly losing their independence and happiness, too.

“We reduce fear,” Seeley said. Well aware of how frightening it is to suffer the loss of vision, she said the staff, volunteers and clients of the Baum Center do wonderfully at helping newcomers adjust successfully to their disability and see that there is hope.

There is also the book club.

Its members select a book and then download or request from the National Library Service a cartridge containing a recording of the book being read aloud by a professional reader.

The members listen to the narration, which can run for hours, then gather at the Earle Baum Center on the first Monday afternoon of the month to share their thoughts about the book.

Each club meeting starts with members taking turns sharing their responses. A small hammer is passed around the circle, from person to person. Everyone knows that the person holding the hammer has the floor.

When one member finishes speaking, he or she passes the hammer to the next person.

“We call it the talking stick,” Lake said. Once each person has had a chance to speak without interruption, the session opens up to free discussion.

The women and men of the club talk about books and life and all sorts of things, certainly about their good fortune to have discovered that the joy of “reading” remains available to people who can no longer see words.

Seeley said after the meeting that before her vision began to dim from glaucoma a decade ago, she loved each night to pick up a book and take up the story where she’d left off the night before.

“Now,” she said, “I’m listening to books every night before I go to bed. It’s a wonderful way to end the day.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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