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A pandemic and an aging population have the Earle Baum Center of the blind doing more these days

It’s been several years since Betty Green, 98, has been able to take the bus from Ukiah to Santa Rosa to attend in-person classes at the Earle Baum Center of the Blind.

Both distance and age have made the trek increasingly difficult for Green, who lost her sight years ago in a firearm accident when she was a high school student. The center, a regional facility in west Santa Rosa, serves people with sight loss in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties.

That’s a big territory to cover, but pandemic-era communications technologies helped the center bridge the gap for people like Green. Since last summer, the center has returned to in-person services, but it continues with conference calls and Zoom sessions to meet a growing need across the North Bay.

“They’re finding out that people like it, they like the conference calls,” Green said. “Some don’t, they want a local meeting in their town. But enough people like the conference calls that they’re eating them up.”

Green said she’s benefited greatly from the center’s support groups and technology classes that keep her from being isolated, particularly during the pandemic and especially now during the holidays. With conference calls for support groups and other classes, participants need only wait for a call that instantly connects them with others across the region.

Made new friends across the North Bay on Zoom

“I’ve made friends there, that’s important -- being in contact with people who are coping with the same situation that I have coped with all my life, all my adult life,” said Green. “As they lose one faculty or another, whatever age people are, they have to learn to adjust. It’s the choice of learning to do what you can, regardless of your disability, and live as nearly as you can a full life.”

For the better part of the pandemic, like many other organizations and businesses, Earle Baum shuttered in-person services and activities and immediately started delivering services via conference calls and video Zoom meetings. That organizational shift was made a little easier, as the center already had a good deal of expertise in communications technologies.

“We didn’t have any outside vendor coming in telling us how to do it, we had the technology skill-set in house to figure it out,” said Bob Sonnenberg, the center’s CEO.

Founded 22 years ago, the center has been a haven for the blind and those with sight impairment, offering services such a low-vision clinic, support groups, enrichment programs and social activities. The center was built on a 17-acre rural campus that contains a recreational field, a quarter-mile rope trail, a one-mile walking trail and a unique labyrinth accessible for people with sight loss.

Sonnenberg said that after the center resumed in-person classes over the summer, it became clear that many clients were still concerned about their health and safety and felt more comfortable with remote classes. At the same time, the center was reaching more people in more rural parts of the North Bay, he said.

134 new clients

In the fiscal year ending in June, the center added 134 new clients and saw its hours of service at its low-vision clinic increase by 46%. In the past year, Sonnenberg added, the center has served 6,932 people in the area.

James McCleary, 74, of Petaluma, said he frequently taps into the center’s support group via conference call. McCleary, who used to live in Mendocino County, moved to Sonoma County with his wife to be closer to their grandchildren.

McCleary, who is now retired, spent 27 years working for the Masonite Corporation at its Ukiah forestry division. After that, he worked 10 years for the Mendocino County planning and building department.

He is now legally blind from genetic retinal deterioration. Though his peripheral vision is pretty good, he has poor central vision.

“It began probably in my early 50s,” he said, adding that it’s advanced to the point where he can no longer drive.

McCleary said that before the pandemic, the group used to meet regularly, in person, at a retirement home kitchen facility. “We now are having [a] telephone version of the group,” he said. “We attempted Zoom contact, that was really not that popular with people who had low or no vision.”

During the calls, the group discusses a number of topics with the help of a facilitator, including cooking ideas, tips on getting around, transportation ideas and entertainment ideas.

“We share technology innovations, availability, how to make use of technology,” McCleary said. “We cover a number of topics and we share what we’re doing, how we’re doing it … how to cope with life’s many challenges.”

Blind and vision-impaired residents of Sonoma County make up a small but tight-knit community. About 8,330 people, or less than 2% of the county’s nearly 500,000 population, experience some form of vision impairment.

The ongoing pandemic has posed significant challenges for the Baum Center, which as a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization is supported primarily through private donations, grants and foundation funding. About 75% of the center’s $1.6 million funding comes from individual donations, corporate events, grants and estate planning gifts, said Sonnenberg.

The center receives a smaller share from fee-for-service income from the state Department of Rehabilitation and a nominal amount from the federal government.

Hoby Wedler, chairman of the Earle Baum Center board of directors, said local donors are a “key to the work that we and the work that we want to keep doing in our community.”

Wedler, at 34, said he’s completely blind and understands the challenges and difficulties experienced by those with sight loss. He said that people “often call us who are ready to commit suicide. We tell them we can help you wade through this and help you cope with sight loss.”

For Wedler, in-person contact with other Earle Baum clients is what he prefers. But he said the hybrid model adopted by so many people, organizations and businesses allows the center to bring more people together.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that a lot of good stuff comes from in person meetings,” he said. “But there is so much more that we’ve been able to do because we’ve been able to work remotely. In many cases, clients don’t have to drive to the center, instructors don’t have to drive to the center either. We’re able to serve more people.”

To help the Earle Baum Center with a holiday gift, visit https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/earlebaumcenter.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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