Winter 2018 Newsletter

February 23, 2018

A pdf of this newsletter is available by clicking here

We Can’t Change Vision, But We Can Change Lives

Mary Elllen with her daughter
Mary Elllen with her daughter

In the tiny town of Surry, perched on the west bank of Union River Bay, there are less than 700 households. Mary Ellen Gilley, a former nurse, first moved there with her late husband when he retired from his orthodontic practice. Although she lives alone now, her five daughters and their families live nearby and pitch in whenever she needs anything.

One of her daughters learned about The Iris Network’s vision rehabilitation services through a friend whose mother was experiencing difficulty with her sight. “She called and asked The Iris Network to get in touch with me,” Mary Ellen said. “They have been very, very good to me.”

Like thousands of other seniors throughout Maine, Mary Ellen has macular degeneration. “I’m 95 now, but I’ve had eye problems for 40 years,” she said. “Years ago, when we lived in Bangor, they didn’t yet have the injections to slow the progress of the disease. I ended up losing the central vision in my right eye.”

The Iris Network is helping her make the best use of her remaining vision. It all started with a conversation in her home with a vision rehabilitation therapist. With the absence of a low vision clinic in the area, the therapist brought a variety of glasses with varying magnifications and tints. “I was glad I could try them out and see what would work best for me. She had tinted glasses in many shades, and ones that clip-on over prescription glasses. It was very nice,” Mary Ellen said.

An Iris Network certified vision rehabilitation therapist visited her in her home to teach her new skills for independent living. “She was excellent,” Mary Ellen said.

The Iris Network can’t change vision, but they can change lives. For Mary Ellen, that means finding new ways to do the things she loves to do. “I’m an avid reader. I enjoy reading books, and I read the Bangor Daily News every day,” she said. In addition to reading on her Kindle, she uses a video magnifier. “I call it my television.” She uses large cards when she plays bridge with friends three times a week. And she continues to make beautiful quilts, although now, she sticks to straight line designs rather than circles.

The vision rehabilitation services offered by The Iris Network make it possible for seniors like Mary Ellen Gilley to remain in their homes because they have the tools and training to know how to do things safely and independently. “I’m doing very well, I must say. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve been well taken care of. And I’ve been very, very pleased with The Iris Network.”

Jim Phipps Awarded VisionServe Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Jim Phipps given award
Jim Phipps given award

On November 7, 2017, VisionServe Alliance was pleased to honor Jim Phipps. As a kid, Jim loved spending summers on Chebeague Island, off the coast of Maine. After graduating from Florida State University, he married his personal Lifetime Achievement, Giselle.  Together they headed off on an educational journey. Jim to the Wharton School of Business where he earned an MBA, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School where he earned his JD. Then to Minnesota for Giselle to attend graduate school.  In 1987, the Phipps moved to Portland, Maine where Jim became an Associate at a prestigious law firm, eventually working his way up to a partnership.  During his 21-year tenure in law, the Phipps moved to Jim’s beloved Chebeague Island, which required a ferry ride to and from work each day, and their family grew with daughters Katie and Christy.

Jim also wore many charitable hats and served several years on the Board of The Iris Network and as its chairman. When The Iris Network was sorely in need of leadership, Jim was named Executive Director in 2008. Jim has a very strong work ethic and also a great compassion for others. He always felt that he was lucky having a family who supported his independence and access to an excellent education. He wanted that and more for others dealing with vision loss. In addition to improving The Iris Network’s state-wide service delivery system, he grew The Iris Network’s budget to $3 Million, improved legislative relationships, served on VisionServe’s board, and was instrumental in acquiring an establishment grant that allowed The Iris Network to remodel a three-story building, which he oversaw most details in planning and construction. This building is now home to the agency and a new residential rehabilitation center for eligible, working-age people who are blind or visually impaired, who come from across the country to gain the skills needed to return to or join a competitive workforce. Jim retired in the summer of 2017 and retired to his home in Mexico.

The Iris Network names Dr. David Barnwell as Executive Director

Dr. David Barnwell, DBADr. David Barnwell, DBA

The Iris Network has selected David Barnwell, DBA to be its new President/Executive Director. Please join The Iris Network in welcoming Dr. Barnwell to the organization. The Iris Network’s Chairman of the Board, David Joyce, said, “After a wide-ranging search, we have chosen Dr. David Barnwell to lead our agency. His experience in the blindness industry, credentials, leadership and advocacy style are a great match for what our community-benefit organization needs to expand and be the premier provider of training and services to those we serve.” 

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.

The Importance of Care

Anne Lynch
Anne Lynch

Anne Lynch was in her early 50s when she first began experiencing terrible headaches. “I thought I just needed new glasses,” she said. But when she went to visit an eye specialist, she was diagnosed with glaucoma. Her vision began to decline rapidly. After a series of operations, she eventually had to stop driving, and soon retired.

Anne who lives in Wells, first learned about The Iris Network through the Wells Support Group, which met monthly at a local church. A vision rehabilitation therapist met with her at her apartment to assess her needs and help her make the best use of her remaining vision. “Over the years, The Iris Network has always been there to assist me as my vision declined,” Anne said.

More recently, she scheduled an appointment at the Low Vision Clinic at The Iris Network in Portland to explore stronger magnification. A donation through her church enabled her to purchase a special task light and stronger magnifier. The vision rehabilitation therapist followed up with training in her home to assist her with setting up the lamp and teaching her to use the magnifier. At the same time, a home assessment indicated a need to update marking of appliances and use of indoor glare shields.

“I went to the Low Vision Clinic  to have a low vision exam and occupational therapy (OT) evaluation to get 4X glasses and a 4X magnifier. The glasses are great for reading my mail.” The OT made a referral to vision rehabilitation services to continue with vision rehabilitation in the comfort of her home. She also reads large print books and listens to audio books. Her eyes are sensitive to light, and she finds that orange-tinted glasses are a big help in controlling indoor glare from her windows. “The Iris Network is a wonderful organization,” she said. “They had me reading again in no time.” 

Glaucoma runs throughout Anne’s family history. Her grandfather, mother, and siblings: Mary, Mike, Peggy, and Joanie, all experienced vision loss from the condition. “My grandfather lost his vision three weeks after he was diagnosed,” she recalled. “It was 1937, and they didn’t know what to do for it back then.” She was only seven at the time, but still fondly remembers walking hand-in-hand with him and hearing his stories about Ireland.

Anne has spent her life helping others, and knows the importance of good care, a positive attitude, and faith. At 88, she is retired from 23 years as a nun with the Carmalite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. She also worked in New York City as a certified occupational therapist aide and as a caregiver for her mother. And although she has health problems in addition to her sight loss, she is upbeat, and always looks for ways to help others.

“I love people,” she said, “People are kind and I have so many friends who offer to drive me places or help with chores at home. Sometimes, talking to people helps them. I tell them: Life isn’t as bad as we make it. Everybody has their heartaches. Sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh. Just keep going and keep your courage up. Do the best you can and be active in your mind and body. Blow your troubles away like bubbles and find peace.” 

101 and Still Going Strong

Barbara Millar
Barbara Millar

Macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma are the leading causes of vision loss in older Americans. The Iris Network’s vision rehabilitation services help seniors retain their independence and quality of life.

Just ask Barbara Millar of Kittery, Maine: “People keep telling me, ‘You’re remarkable, Barbara!’ I don’t think of myself as remarkable,” she said, “but I guess they think so, because I’ve reached the age of 101 and I still have my mental faculties. I can still think and reason, and I have no dementia. And I can get around all by myself.”

But she does have age-related macular degeneration. “I’m living in a senior retirement home, and I’m supposed to be independent. I started having problems with my vision about two years ago,” she said.

Luckily for Barbara, a nurse that visits the home noticed that she was having trouble seeing. “She recommended The Iris Network, and she made all the necessary phone calls to get me started with them,” Barbara said. Referrals like these are vital for seniors, because there is a lot that can be done to make their lives easier and safer.

Barbara is a former elementary school teacher, and loves to read. “I started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in 1937,” she said. “I went back to visit it after 77 years and the local paper wrote an article about me. Now, I get calls from some of my former students. It is so nice to be remembered!” She’s heard from former students as far away as Texas.

“My vision is getting fuzzier and fuzzier. I can no longer read my large print books anymore.” The vision rehabilitation therapist connected her with the Maine State Library’s Talking Book Program, which has enabled her to continue her love of reading. “It’s wonderful! I like reading mysteries, historical and romantic novels. Anything that’s worth reading, I like,” she said.

The therapist also recommended a new phone, with large, back-lit numbers and better amplification, Barbara can stay connected with family, friends, and former students. The therapist also assisted her with magnification for spot-reading and she is on a waitlist for a used video magnifier to read her mail.

For Barbara, a long life isn’t as important as a good quality of life. She starts each day with the right attitude. “I say this Bible verse: ‘This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ I think that’s the way we should live. Accept the day and enjoy it. Do the best you can.”

She is grateful for the support she’s received from The Iris Network. “The Iris Network has been very, very helpful to me,” she said. “We are very lucky to have it.”

Join The Iris Network Giving Society

The Iris Network announces the creation of The Iris Network Giving Society.  Society members are donors who realize that The Iris Network needs a steady, reliable stream of income to take the organization from good to great.  Society members have agreed to have a set donation amount withdrawn from their bank account or charged to their credit card each month. For more information, please contact Regal Naseef at (207) 518-5016 or rnaseef@theiris.org or donate online at www.theiris.org/donate


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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