180 Guests at Dining in the Dark Glimpse Life With Low Vision

Jill McNeil

MORRIS COUNTY — Nicole Cicchetti said she felt instantly isolated when she covered her eyes with a black mask at Dining in the Dark. “Of course I couldn’t see, but my hearing was affected too: it was like the conversation at the table became muffled,” explained Cicchetti, one of 180 guests at Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey’s annual fundraiser on Oct. 24.

Across The Meadow Wood ballroom, VLANJ participant and line dance instructor Harry “Buddy” Bradley coached Jill McNeil as she struggled to slice her chateaubriand. The next challenge was eating the small-cut pieces. She laughed when she brought an empty fork to her mouth. “I’ve done that three times!” she said. Fourth try was a charm.

Held during Blindness Awareness Month, Dining in the Dark gave sighted guests a glimpse of what life is like for people who are blind or have significant vision loss. It also showcased the fulfilling lives people with vision loss enjoy.

“I never lost my vision; I lost my eyesight!” said Joseph Ruffalo Jr., president of the New Jersey affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. Ruffalo and the Morristown Medical Center Community Health Committee received VLANJ’s Founders Award, while VLANJ honored Senior Program Manager Linda Groszew for 15 years of service.

VLANJ is one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults with vision loss. Created in 1943 as a social club in Newark, it relocated to Denville in 1955 and operated as a summer camp for women. It evolved into the only comprehensive, nonresidential vision rehabilitation program for adults in New Jersey. VLANJ provides direct services in three counties to 225 adults, and another 1,000 participate in outreach programs.

“I am inspired daily by the individuals who attend the programs that we offer. They refuse to let vision loss define who they are and what they can accomplish,” VLANJ Executive Director Kris Marino said.

Longtime newspaperman and book author Mark DiIonno, who emceed the event, told guests how impressed he was by the camaraderie he witnessed at VLANJ. “That sense of community is paramount to what this organization is all about,” DiIonno said.

Vision Loss affects 1 out of 40 adults in New Jersey, and the numbers are expected to increase significantly as the population ages. The National Eye Institute projects the number of people with visual impairment or blindness in the U.S. will double to more than 8 million by 2050.

Dining in the Dark guests watched three videos of VLANJ participants describing how the nonprofit has impacted their lives. They also heard from VLANJ trustee Claudia Schreiber, who became blind more than a decade ago, when her two children were still in elementary school.

Devastated, she turned to VLANJ, and learned skills that helped her reclaim her independence.

“This was the beginning of my journey back,” Schreiber said. “Slowly, slowly, I started to feel like the person I was before.” A sculptor, Schreiber returned to her art, and has become a mentor and advocate for others with vision loss. “I am happier today than I ever have been in my whole life!” she said.

Dining in the Dark, which included a silent auction and a wine pull, raised more than $50,000 to provide services at the nonprofit’s center in Denville and at locations in Montclair in Essex County and Ridgewood in Bergen County.

The event was sponsored by: Aegis Capital Corp.; Williams Jones Wealth Management; Paramount Assets, LLC; Peapack Private; Carl Stahl Sava Industries, Inc.; Thatcher McGhee’s; Summit Lions Club; Mynt Properties, LLC Commercial Real Estate; The Church of the Saviour; Norman Dean Home for Services; Anthony Felicetta; and Florio Management. Joseph and Antoinette Cicchetti chaired the event, and members of the Chester Lioness Club volunteered.