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Spring 2017 Newsletter

April 14, 2017

A pdf of this newsletter is available by clicking here

The Iris Network Spring 2017 Insight Newsletter is Here!

A printed version with an accessible code is also being mailed to our constituents this week. If you want to receive one and are not on our mailing list, contact Terri Tomchak at ttomchak@theiris.org or call (207) 518-5040.

With a Little Help from my Friends

This is my home,” said Brenda Bacon of Wells, Maine. It is a caring community with a population that ranges from fewer than 10,000 in winter to 30-40,000 in summer. Brenda lost her vision at the age of 37, but she gets by with the help of her friends, family and The Iris Network.

“I choose to live where I live. I’m not going to move anywhere,” she said. “I was born and brought up 17 miles away. This is where my children grew up, and where my friends are. My husband and I had this house built for our retirement, so it’s perfect,” she said. Her husband of 36 years died from a heart attack 11 years ago.

“But it’s rural here. I can’t even get out on a sidewalk and walk to the store,” she said. “The nearest store to me is three miles away, and that’s just a teeny convenience store.” She doesn’t drive. Her sister June takes her shopping, and her sons and their families visit often. When she goes to the movies her friends sit on either side of her so they can describe the action on the screen (if the theater doesn’t have descriptive dialogue).

When she first lost her vision, The Iris Network sent a counselor to her home to discuss her needs. “I’ll tell you, at that time, I really needed somebody to talk to who had vision loss,” she said. “My counselor had lost his vision from diabetes as a teenager, and he was only a couple of years older than me at that time. We had honest talks, from the heart, and he really helped me to adjust to what was going on with my vision. He was doing fine, and it proved to me that yes, there is life after blindness.”

The Iris Network introduced her to Braille, and marked the dials on her appliances so she could cook and do laundry independently. She also received training in how to use the white cane and they helped orient her to her local environment.

“Books on tape are my lifeline,” she said. “I love them.” She also has a video magnifier that helps her enlarge crossword puzzles. And she enjoys knitting winter hats on a knitting loom for family and friends. She donates around 15 of the caps to the local kindergarten for children to use at recess. “This is my little way of helping to keep the kids warm,” she said.

Brenda believes in giving back. She is on The Iris Network’s Consumer Advisory Committee, and since the early 90s, has been running a local support group for the blind and visually impaired that was started by The Iris Network. “Some of my best friends are in their 90s,” she said. “We have a good time. Around 90 percent of my group has macular degeneration and the average age is 85. When you’re blind, your biggest problem is transportation. It’s so important for people not to feel isolated. I know for myself, I hate staying home. So, you have to have a good group of friends who are willing to help you out and take you places.”

Friendship, a caring community, and The Iris Network are making it possible for seniors who are blind or visually impaired to stay in their homes, where they want to be. They are able to enjoy life safely, and be independent.


Message from the Executive Director

I recently announced that I will retire from the position of President & Executive Director of The Iris Network by September 15, 2017. The Board of Directors has begun the work to conduct a national search for a successor. I am confident that the next Executive Director will continue to improve upon the high quality vision rehabilitation and related services provided by the dedicated professional staff of The Iris Network. 

In the past decade, I have focused on the growth and development of primary vision rehabilitation services. During my tenure, The Iris Network initiated the Access Technology and Employment Services program.  We also partnered with the consumer community to promote state legislation to increase funding for services for people experiencing vision loss in Maine.  This advocacy effort led to a highly successful capital campaign to renovate the 100+ year old William J. Ryan Building in 2014-15.  As a result, we launched The Iris Network Rehabilitation Center and acquired a historic circa 1890 residence to provide housing for clients in the community half a mile from the Rehabilitation Center. 

I am most proud of the collaboration between The Iris Network and Maine’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  This collaboration enabled the launch of the Rehabilitation Center in September of 2015.  Now, clients newly experiencing low vision and blindness from Maine and other states stay in the community for up to 20 weeks while they receive intensive primary vision rehabilitation and job-readiness training to prepare  for independent living and competitive integrated employment.

The progress we have made has been possible only because of the commitment by many who have joined together in a common effort to improve services for people experiencing low vision and blindness.  The Phipps Legacy Fund has been established in an effort to continue the efforts of all those who have worked together to grow and improve the services offered by The Iris Network.

As a way to thank those who continue to support the future growth and development of The Iris Network, I have made a commitment to match gifts specifically designated by donors to the Phipps Legacy Fund during the next three years.  I hope you will join me by giving generously to the Phipps Legacy Fund.  Together, we can continue to make a difference in the lives of people experiencing low vision and blindness.

Very truly yours,

James E. (Jim) Phipps, MBA/JD

President & Executive Director

The Phipps Legacy Fund will support The Iris Network to continue its 112 year history of helping people who are visually impaired or blind attain independence and community integration. Our services help working-age people who have lost their vision to prepare for employment and for consumers of all ages, particularly seniors with age-related vision loss, to learn independent living and orientation and mobility skills. Jim Phipps was a member of the board and chair before he became President & Executive Director of The Iris Network from 2008-2017. He is well known in Maine for his work both as a lawyer in the field of tax planning and advocate and leader for the blind. Donations in any amount to this fund will ensure his legacy of commitment to The Iris Network. To make a donation to the fund, simply put “Phipps Legacy Fund” on the “for” line of your check to The Iris Network, donate online to www.theiris.org with a note about the fund, or contact Regal Naseef at (207) 518-5016 or rnaseef@theiris.org.

We acknowledge with gratitude the sponsorship of a portion of the cost of production and distribution of this newsletter by Maine’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Why I Give — Doris Grover

Doris Grover, a former psychiatric nurse, is 93, and grateful to be able to live in her own home in Brewer, a town of 9,000. “It’s beautiful here,” she said. “I love looking out the window.” She has a view of the Penobscot River. “I love the change of seasons.”

Doris has a very personal reason for donating to The Iris Network. “I’ve received requests from The Iris Network for years. I’ve always given to them because I thought that going blind would be one of the worst things that could happen.”

Three years ago, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration. “I can get around the house fine, but I can no longer read even fairly large print. Numbers and letters are running together. Sometimes, I see double or even triple. I have balance problems, and I’m stooped, but if I could get my eyesight back, I wouldn’t complain about anything else.”

 The Iris Network visited Doris in her home. “They brought me a digital video magnifier,” she said. “I just move a device like a computer mouse over print I want to read, and it shows up enlarged on the screen. It’s a big help. I use it even for my medicine bottles.” She has stickers and labels to help identify her medications. She now has magnifiers and a high-contrast TV remote. 

“I went to a meeting at The Iris Network,” she said. “They talked about transportation. They discuss things that are helpful to people. The people are nice. I would love to be able to drive, but I gave it up,” she said. “Nobody forced me to do it. I just didn’t want to take a chance of having an accident or doing some damage.” While her church is just up the street, downtown is three miles away, and she depends on a ride to get to appointments and The Iris Network bi-monthly meetings. “Everybody helps everybody here. It’s a community.” 

And Doris does her part: “I have several charities that I give to — charities I feel are worthy — veteran’s organizations, heart fund and cancer. I think The Iris Network is very worthy — they do all they can with what they have to help people. A lot of people can’t afford anything. I do it because I appreciate all the help, and everyone is so pleasant. What goes around comes around. I was able to do it for other people, and now they’re doing it for me.” 


A New Sense of Freedom

"I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it."  - Maya Angelou

When Julie Voisine learned about The Iris Network Rehabilitation Center, she had no idea it would change her life in so many ways. The program taught her new skills, but more importantly, it taught her a new way to see herself.

“I had always believed that I am dis-abled,” she said. “Now, I know I am EN-ABLED. I am empowered. I can do anything. I have learned who I am, who I want to be. I will no longer allow myself, or the world, to label my vision loss as a negative factor.

Julie has retinitis pigmentosa (RP). RP is inherited and causes a gradual degeneration of the retinas. It is often referred to as “tunnel vision” because it usually affects peripheral vision first. More recently, Julie also developed macular degeneration, which affects central vision.

During her training at the Rehabilitation Center, an expert orientation and mobility specialist taught her to travel safely on the streets of Portland, using a white cane. She learned to plan routes, take various forms of public transportation, use audio GPS, and ask for directions when needed. “It has made it easier for me to be able to socialize,” Julie said. “I am more confident. I no longer have to worry about being inside my house at a certain time because it is getting too dark. I have learned that I can be safe traveling in the dark — I have the tools needed to do this. It is an amazing feeling!” 

The customized 2-20 week program is intensive, with more than 40 hours per week spent on learning new skills. Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors and employment specialists help prepare students for the world of work. Some are new to the workforce; others are re-entering, or learning skills so they can keep their current employment. 

Assistive technology specialists introduced Julie and her classmates to the latest in accessible technology: using voice commands, audio screen readers, magnifiers and recording devices. “I have learned how to use screen reading software programs for the computer, keyboard shortcuts, and how to access printed materials,” Julie said. “I can transfer all of these skills to my future employment.” 

“Growing up in rural Maine, I had not thought I’d be able to get a job and be a productive, fulfilled, employed individual because of my visual impairment,” Julie said. “Now, I am very excited to put into practice what I have learned here. I now know that I can do jobs that sighted people do. Once I leave here, I plan on getting certified as a nursing associate.” 

Julie’s enthusiasm is boundless. “To me this program is about freedom — the freedom to outgrow who I was and become the person I had no idea I could be — the freedom to explore, and decide who I want to be. In short, I HAVE FOUND HER!” 

If you know someone who is being challenged by vision loss, call The Iris Network at (207) 774-6273 or (800) 715-0097. For more information, our website is www.theiris.org. 

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