VLANJ Expands Free Virtual Programs During Pandemic Thanks to Grants

Delores ‘Dee’ Eliassen

MORRIS COUNTY — Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey continues to expand its free virtual offerings during the COVID-19 pandemic, as two foundations support the nonprofit’s outreach efforts.

VLANJ’s winter 2021 session offers 13 weekly Beyond Sight wellness classes that run through April 9, plus several shorter skills training and enrichment opportunities for adults with vision loss.

“The pandemic only heightened feelings of isolation for people with vision loss, but our virtual classes give them access to information, wellness opportunities, and each other,” VLANJ Program Director Elsa Zavoda said.

The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation awarded VLANJ $15,000 to run the virtual programs on Zoom, the popular video conferencing service. The Grotta Fund for Senior Care, which funded VLANJ’s fall 2020 virtual programming, awarded VLANJ another nearly $10,000 to help keep it going in 2021.

“We’re so grateful to the foundations for helping us remove barriers so people with vision loss can access programs and interact with peers and our professional staff,” Zavoda said. The grants allow VLANJ to run online classes, support groups, and educational and enrichment programs at no charge to adults with vision loss.

Grotta Fund Executive Director Renie Cariol applauded VLANJ in the fall for serving “an at-risk population with opportunities for physical and mental wellness and social connectedness, and to learn technology.”

Two hundred people registered for at least one virtual offering, and most are taking two or more, Zavoda said. “We’re able to serve a lot more people than we ever had,” she said, noting former participants living in distant counties and out of state, homebound seniors, and people lacking transportation are able to participate. Enrollment in VLANJ programs has tripled since they went virtual.

“All these Zoom classes have helped keep me sane. They keep my body and my brain active,” said Delores ‘Dee’ Eliassen, who’d had to give up driving due to her deteriorating vision last February. The 76-year-old widow takes eight VLANJ virtual classes a week.

Healing Rhythms is a new evening class that incorporates elements of neuropsychology, music therapy, neurology, and other mental wellness interventions. Favorites like Now & Zen yoga, Fitness Fun with Joannie, and Inquiring Minds are all back. Click vlanj.org/program-schedule to see the winter schedule and a description of each class.

One new monthly program is STRIVE (Strength Through Relationships, Insights, Values, Education), designed to provide information and guidance to people with vision loss, as well as sighted people who are helping someone who has lost sight. STRIVE is held the second Wednesday of each month. The popular Tech Talks webinar series runs the fourth Wednesday of each month, addressing issues such as smart technology, shopping apps, and an introduction to screen reader technology.

Living Independently For Tomorrow (LIFT), which began Feb. 3, is a virtual version of VLANJ’s effective in-person Essential Low Vision course. LIFT provides basic training in daily life activities over four weeks. The 90-minute sessions cover kitchen safety and organization; orientation and mobility; optical aids, lighting, and contrast; and simple solutions for managing money, medications, and writing. LIFT will be offered every other month throughout the year, Zavoda said.

Also back is the Technology Learning Lab, which focuses on computer skills that can help participants gain employment. The five students currently enrolled receive four hours a week of one-on-one training in Microsoft Windows 10 operating system, using JAWS, a screen reader, or Fusion, a combination screen reader and text magnifier.

While VLANJ plans to resume in-person programs once the coronavirus is no longer a risk, virtual classes will continue as a means to serve people who cannot get to VLANJ, Zavoda said. Transportation has long been a challenge for people with vision loss, she noted. For more information about enrolling or supporting VLANJ, contact VLANJ Senior Program Manager Linda Groszew at lgroszew@vlanj.org or (973) 627-0055, ext.1312.

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. Started in 1943, VLANJ is one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults who are blind or visually impaired. The organization builds participants’ independence and confidence and creates a space for friendships to flourish. VLANJ also educates the wider community about the challenges of vision loss and how sighted people can serve as advocates. For more information click here.