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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.

One group, playfully named The Cover Girls, decorates book covers by applying wallpaper with sponge brushes and Elmer’s glue, then carefully wraps them in protective wax paper as they are stacked to dry.

“It’s quite fun, and our table is quite social,” said Ginny Dias, 69, an artist who paints in acrylics and watercolors. “We talk about restaurants and trips and art and dogs and all kinds of things.”

The friendship that develops among volunteers is a bonus to the collective mission of creating visual aids.

“The camaraderie is great,” said Pam Gilbert, 73, a retired kindergarten teacher. “You feel like you’re doing something, like you’re contributing.”

She was working in unison recently with fellow retired teachers Rose West, 73, and Mollie Atkinson, 79, and retired Realtor Flo Boxerman, 91. The women were cutting and gluing shapes from felt, some backed in adhesive.

“You remember being back in kindergarten?” Boxerman quipped about their assignments. She’s long since mastered the tasks during more than 20 years as a workshop volunteer.

The women say members are supportive, appreciative and forgiving of any mistakes that might be made.

“We help each other,” Atkinson said. “We never fire each other.”

Milan credits a wide circle of Oakmont residents with the group’s success. The workshop was founded by retired teacher Winifred Thiltgen, who consulted with educators of the visually impaired to develop products for the greatest benefit. She received a Thousand Points of Light Award for volunteerism from President George H. W. Bush.

Thiltgen, who died in 2001, relied on a group of friends and neighbors to help in her cause.

Demand has grown since the workshop’s start 46 years ago. Originally a word-of-mouth effort, today parents and educators can go online to the group’s web page to order products at no cost. Shipping also is free, with postage covered by international agreements for humanitarian aid for the visually impaired.

Orders go out four times per year, with a team of Oakmont men helping with packing and delivering orders to the post office. More than 1,000 items typically are shipped with each mailing — 1,045 were sent (in about 100 boxes) to different parts of the globe earlier this summer.

Expenses are covered through donations and discounts from retailers, and funding by service organizations like Oakmont Kiwanis and Rotary, plus proceeds from weekly blood pressure clinics conducted in Oakmont by retired nurses. Memorial donations, a grant from a sorority and monies raised by Oakmont bridge players also help with expenses.

Time-saving specialty items like electronic Braillers and the Thermoforms used to make Braille flash cards and other items from sturdy plastic also have been donated, with workshop members grateful to the North Bay Lions Club, Thermoform Corp., Petaluma Transcribers and many others for their contributions.

Milan estimates the annual cost for materials at $4,000 to $5,000 or about $2.50 per book.

The workshop always welcomes new volunteers and tax-deductible donations; even Milan’s grandson offers a helping hand. Milan heads to Rocklin near Sacramento each month to deliver supplies to her 13-year-old grandson Jackson Milan’s school, where students help as a community service campaign.

Barbara Milan said cards of thanks from recipients — like the father in Pakistan — reinforce every effort, from the snipping of scissors to the processing of orders. A $150 donation came from someone on the East Coast who appreciated receiving four handcrafted books; dozens of Mrs. Fields cookies arrived for volunteers from another person thankful for a shipment of learning aids.

“Most of the time when we hear back, they’re very grateful,” Milan said. “They compliment us on the nice work we do.”

For more information, visit teachersaidsforblindchildren.org.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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