With its humble beginnings as a 900-square-foot bungalow in the 1930s, the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has grown dramatically in the past 80 years.
To meet a demand for more space, the Lighthouse has started construction of a new floor for its building at 601 SW Eighth Ave. This new part of the building will be known as the Sash A. Spencer Empowerment Center, will cater specifically to students between the ages of 14 and 22 who are looking for higher education opportunities as well as employment options.
The 6,000-square-foot expansion cost about $2.5 million and will include the Carmella Witt Technology Laboratory, a Math Laboratory, the Marta Weeks Transition Suite, and the Dan and Jan Lewis Braille Homeroom. All of these new facilities aim to incorporate the power of technology in order to teach students the skills necessary for their independence.
These facilities take a different approach to teaching even the most traditional of subjects like math. The Math Laboratory will be an area dedicated to teaching students how to use tactile graphing kits which will help them create and use raised graphs. They will also have access to math tools such as abacuses and talking calculators .
On the other hand, facilities like the Marta Weeks Transition Suite will allow students to focus on the expanded core curriculum such as using assistive technology like computers, learning home management/personal management skills, and training on how to use low vision magnifiers.
By giving these transitional students their own space, the Lighthouse will hope to focus on their specific needs, and keep them responsible by taking care of their own materials and maintaining their own space.
The process began when the Lighthouse received a gift in November 2011 from the William H. and Leonora K. Hegamyer Family Foundation. Other parties also donated to the cause such as the Rev. Marta Weeks, Jan and Dan Lewis, Penny and Roe Stamps, the Sash A. Spencer family, and other 80th anniversary donors. Aside from donations, OHL-Arellano Construction, a partner of the Lighthouse, will be providing the general contracting services pro bono, just as they did with the Lighthouse’s last expansion in 2006.
Virginia Jacko, president and CEO of the Lighthouse, said she was amazed at just how much technology has advanced in recent years and how it continues to benefit the blind community, especially the transitional students.
In the past, blind or visually impaired people had to carry around large devices to be able to assist them in daily tasks. With recent technological advancements such as iPads, daily tasks and independence have become more manageable.
“Technology is a great friend to the blind, and in a way, it’s a great time to be blind,” Jacko said. “IPads can give them everything they need, and they don’t need to feel different from their peers.”
The Miami Lighthouse serves 10,000 people per year, ranging from babies to the elderly. Its mission is to teach clients that their blindness or visual impairment does not have to limit their lives.
Students are taught everything from home skills such as how to cook and perform chores to how to conduct themselves in interviews and how to write a resume. Students also receive stipends from the Florida Division of Blind Services to intern at different establishments such as the Miami Children’s Museum.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 3 years old, and the Lighthouse has taught me how to be a normal person,” said Juan Paniagua, a 13-year-old student.
Students usually come every Saturday, during the summer, or even on their days off during the school year. They often struggle with graduation requirements such as the FCAT or even their regular classes, so they have to find a way to learn through a different medium than their peers, like Braille.
According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 8.8 percent of visually impaired children from elementary to high school know how to read Braille.
It is reasons such as these that Lighthouse has chosen to expand their space to be able to focus on these transitional students more, and be able to offer them higher education opportunities along with employment options.
“It’s a pivotal point for their future,” Jacko said, “and it breaks my heart if they can’t be the next blind attorney, or the next blind social worker, or the next blind teacher.”