In January, the Engelstad Family Foundation awarded Blind Center of Nevada a $3 million grant to spearhead the construction of a 36,000-square-foot expansion. Money like that isn’t parted with often unless you’ve done something substantial. Blind Center’s achievement? Creating family beyond what the eye can see.
Operating as Las Vegas’ only full-service center for blind and visually impaired adults, the Blind Center began in 1955 and has since evolved into what Cory Nelson, the Center’s president, walks us through now: an encouraging atmosphere structured around self-sufficiency, fitness and fun. “This is such a wonderful place that sometimes, believe it or not, people pretend they’re blind so they can come here,” he says.
The Blind Center sends for its members every morning through the RTC’s Paratransit bus service. For some, this is their first time riding a bus, but Nelson says the freedom of safe transportation builds their confidence. Upon arrival, members are fed by way of donations from U.S. Foods, and then myriad activities open up to them. They can embark on supervised field trips to stores and the movies, bowl on the Center’s two-lane alley, pick books from the braille and e-book library, take lessons in the computer lab stocked with blind-friendly hardware or hit the full-service gym, complete with two personal trainers.
On the second floor of the Center, music teacher Kathy Kavanaugh runs through harp practice with two of her students. From keyboard to ukulele—they have a selection of instruments from which to play. Down the hall, the Broken Spectacles, a six-member band whose members are all legally blind, rehearse an acoustic rendition of the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.”
Music, however, isn’t the only thing at which the members excel. Dozens of sculpted creations line the walls of the ceramics room. Plates, vases, cups—you name it, and art teacher Sherrie Thomas has taught rooms of 25 to make it. She also teaches the Center’s weaving classes. Nelson says the staff tries to encourage crafters to sell their work on websites such as Etsy to get some income flowing in, but most of the time they present their creations to their loved ones. Why? Because with 70 to 80 percent of the Blind Center’s members living at poverty level, it’s all they can afford to give.
“I believe that even the causes of blindness link back to poverty,” Nelson says. “A lot of our members didn’t necessarily have a good social structure when they may have had problems with their eyes. There’s a couple of people who lost their eyesight because there was nobody there to take them to the doctor or to the ophthalmologist to get this fixed until it was too late.”
To assuage blind members’ financial woes, the Blind Center creates multiple opportunities for their visitors to create an income for themselves. One of the best methods comes from the Center’s solar-powered electronic recycling facility, where both blind and sighted volunteers recycle or refurbish old electronics from companies such as NV Energy, Cox and Caesars Palace.
Marco Martinez works in the recycling department, and even though he’s blind, he still knows his way around dismantling an old computer. Blind for 11 years now, Martinez lost his sight after being shot in the face. Early on, he struggled with how to deal with his limitation.
“I was like in a cave. What I mean by that is stuck at home, in my room, didn’t wanna go nowhere. People invite you, ‘Hey, you wanna go hang out with friends?’ I would say no. I would make up stories. …,” he says. “I always thought I was the only guy who went blind like the way I did.” As we speak, Martinez holds his cane in his hand. It’s an object he admits he never used to use because he worried what people might think. But since visiting the Blind Center, he says he’s started to accept himself and his situation.
The Blind Center’s $3 million grant will enhance the recycling facility Martinez works for, as well as open up new opportunities for other members. Nelson says there’s talk of introducing a culinary program for the blind once the facility opens (tentatively in November). Renting out the building for events and call centers may also be an option, he says, with the potential to hire Blind Center members for work. As for expanding, the president says the Blind Center will remain Downtown for now, but it’s looking into apartment housing for its members. Anything to keep the family together.
Blind Center of Nevada
1001 N. Bruce St., To find out how you can get involved with the Blind Center of Nevada, visit blindcenter.org