LOWELL — For the blind, every daily task changes: from getting dressed to navigating public transportation, their senses of hearing, smell and touch must make up for their lost vision; but what about other tasks that are vision-dependent, like reading the news?
At the Lowell Association for the Blind, volunteers have found an answer. Every weekday from 9 a.m. to noon, volunteers dutifully read The Eagle-Tribune and The Sun of Lowell over a radio program for blind and elderly shut-in residents of the Merrimack Valley.
LAB Development Director Monica Mullen said the program — which six months ago lost a large portion of its public funding — also provides small radios to the elderly who can't get out of their home to retrieve the paper or afford a subscription.
Volunteers read both papers from front to back each day, from page one stories to the editorial section. On a recent Friday, 10-year volunteer David Brandt of Dracut specified to listeners that he was on the front page of The Eagle-Tribune, below the fold before he began to read.
"It changed my life. I'm totally in awe of what the blind people can do, because I know I couldn't handle it if I was blind," said Joanne Shea of Lowell, who has been reading the paper as a volunteer at LAB for 15 years. "They're like my family...it makes me feel special to do something special for them."
The radio program is broadcast over WUML-FM, through UMass Lowell; but it's not the only outreach LAB does for the visually impaired across the Valley. They also offer adult and youth social programming and Braille services, serving clients from age 5 to 90.
"Isolation is a huge thing, so for them to be able to come here and socialize and have programming free of charge is a huge asset," Mullen said.
The social programs meet twice a week for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Participants either spend time at LAB's office on Merrimack Street in downtown Lowell or go on outings. Sometimes those outings are as simple as a trip to the grocery store, while other times they're fun activities like bowling or "birding by ear" on Plum Island, a twist on traditional bird watching.
The staff at LAB is small and consists mainly of five employees and some interns in addition to the volunteers. Most of the staffers still have their vision, with the exception of Dorothy "Dot" Donavan, who is completely blind and teaches newcomers to the program to read Braille.
"When Dot's teaching someone who's blind or visually impaired and they're like, 'How am I gonna do this?' She's like, 'Well, I'm blind. I'm doing it. You can too. We'll encourage one another.' I think that's so powerful," Mullen said. "It just really puts things in perspective."
Most of LAB's clients come by way of a referral from an optometrist or senior center, but others learn by word of mouth. Mullen said that while they focus on the Merrimack Valley, from Chelmsford to Haverhill, they won't turn anybody away, and have a few clients who travel all the way from New Hampshire.
Mullen said she is often blown away by the clients' dedication. "We have another client, it takes her about four hours to get here, and she does it for a two hour program. She's from Salem," she said.
Mullen was hired about a year and a half ago to raise funds from donors that go directly toward programming. Lately, she's had to be extra proactive since the radio program lost much of its funding, but she said the "inspiring" resiliency of LAB's client base is enough to keep her going.
"I think the most impactful thing that we do is to be able to offer our clients a safe and really a joyous atmosphere for them to be able to socialize and to learn and get support with no judgments, and you know, just a very nurturing atmosphere," she said.
"These individuals who can't see, they're so inspiring. They get up every morning, they get dressed and it's a task, it's not easy. For you and I, those are the things we take for granted."