Eighty-year-old Ceil Fenwick admits she isn’t much of a morning person, but once a week the great-grandmother starts her day early so children across the globe can benefit from her volunteer efforts with the Oakmont Visual Aids Workshop.
She’s part of the charitable group that’s produced more than 100,000 handcrafted educational books and learning aids for blind and otherwise visually impaired children since 1971.
Their efforts have reached across all 50 states and destinations as far away as Asia, Africa and Australia.
A father in Pakistan was so moved by the handcrafted books he received that he mailed a heartfelt thank-you note to the Santa Rosa volunteers who made them.
“He thanked us not only for the wonderful books for his son but for the rubber bands and plastic bags they came in,” said Fenwick, a homemaker and mother of five daughters. “Can you imagine? The things we throw away and don’t even think about.”
The books, along with learning aids like flashcards, geometric puzzles and manual clocks, are provided for free. Anyone working with children with visual limitations or mental impairments is eligible to receive the books, from public and private educators to parents and Sunday School teachers.
Volunteers in the Oakmont “active adult” community in northern Sonoma Valley dedicate their time to help make a difference for children and the adults assisting them. The tactile materials are both imprinted in Braille using specialized electronic Braillers and written by hand in meticulous primary-school printing.
The weekly workshops bring together 45 to 50 volunteers — mostly women — who accomplish their tasks with the efficiency of a Fortune 500 company: well-organized, well-managed and with a painstaking attention to detail.
Much of the credit goes to the nonprofit’s board of directors and three volunteer managers, Carol Huseby, Pat Marcelli and Barbara Milan.
Milan, 73, oversees the group, dedicating at least an hour almost daily to her volunteer position. A homemaker who raised three children while also running an advertising business with her husband, Milan is prepared for any challenge that comes her way.
When the group received its largest order ever, she sprang into action.
“The Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts ordered 900 books that we were able to produce for them, but it took us a year,” she said.
The year-round effort is headquartered in one of Oakmont’s recreation centers, where volunteers meet for two hours Monday mornings. Others provide additional work from home. Some couples work together, like Charlene and Walt Brown, who sew items and cut matte board shapes and covers, respectively. Milan’s husband, Joe Milan, assists with various tasks, including making coffee every Monday to go with treats provided for volunteers.
His wife coordinates production of 38 different aids, from five- to 11-page readiness books with tactile illustrations to games like tic-tac-toe. Each is used for developing and reinforcing language and math skills and other learning concepts, like simple and complex comparisons.
Most of the orders are for books, with titles like “Same or Different?” and “Larger to Smaller.”
Volunteers sit at specific task tables to trace and cut shapes like hearts, stars and animals from felt and adhere them onto book pages asking, “Which figure is fourth?” or “Which is narrowest?” Others cut matte boards, cardboard and tagboard; Fenwick runs an electronic hole puncher to prepare book jackets for assembly.