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Earle Baum Center in Santa Rosa reopens campus services for blind residents

Sitting in a classroom at the Earle Baum Center serving the blind and vision-impaired, Liz Stafford of Santa Rosa happily strummed on her ukulele as a volunteer called out the changing chords to the song, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Stafford, 85, has participated in the center’s ukulele class over a Zoom video call. Only the sound of the instructor’s voice and ukulele could be heard. She and the other participants were muted.

On Tuesday afternoon, Stafford, who suffers from macular degeneration, which affects a person’s central vision, could again hear herself play along with all the others in the class. This week, Earle Baum reopened for in-person services for the first time in 16 months.

Conducting a ukulele class via video conference call simply doesn’t even come close to in-person instruction, Stafford said.

“On the phone, you don’t hear the whole group and the group is the whole thrill,” she said. “I mean, it was fun and we kept up our ukulele chops but there’s nothing like being here. It’s just a really exciting day.”

During the pandemic, the only in-person service available at the Santa Rosa center — a regional hub for those with sight loss in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties — was vision exams offered about six times a month, the center’s CEO Bob Sonnenberg said.

All other services — the yoga and exercise classes, the book and movie clubs, poetry and music sessions, Braille classes, assistive technology and mobility orientation instruction — all had to be offered via video or by phone. The loss of in-person “community” for many of the clients presented a challenge for many of the center’s clients, Sonnenberg said.

“It can be really isolating, losing your sight or a portion of your vision,” he said. “And so any chance you get to embrace your sight loss and embrace your blindness and the opportunity to connect with other people in a safe environment is pretty joyful and it gives you hope for the future.”

Sonnenberg said the 17-acre center, which is supported primarily through private donations, grants and foundation funding, provides services to between 300 and 400 individuals a year. It also receives fee-for-service income from the state Department of Rehabilitation and a nominal amount from the federal government.

The population of blind and vision-impaired residents in Sonoma County is 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, said Shannon Atlas, a spokeswoman for the center.

The pandemic posed a particular challenge for many of them. Such things as keeping six feet of social distance and riding on public transportation were that much more difficult, Sonnenberg said.

In addition, many of the center’s clients are older and therefore more likely to experience some of the more severe outcomes of COVID-19. He said some clients were particularly afraid of becoming infected by the infectious disease and possibly losing their ability to taste and smell.

Stafford said one of the biggest pandemic-related obstacles for her was the inability to touch surfaces. “It’s hugely difficult for vision-impaired people who rely on feeling, because you couldn’t touch anything,” she said.

The reopening of the Earle Baum campus brings back a sense of normalcy for many people, she said.

“I want to list off all the ways that COVID made it harder, but just being back together in a group is thrilling; it’s really fun,” Stafford said.

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

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