San Francisco's newest lighthouse brightens lives

August 25, 2016 | GET MORE : Community

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This nonprofit is expanding its space and services with a little help from U.S. Bank.

After 12 years of slowly losing her vision, Sydney Ferrario finally sought help and the result changed her life.

Ferrario, who has retinitis pigmentosa, attended a weeklong camp in Napa, Calif., run by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, one of the pre-eminent such schools in the nation. Before LightHouse's "Changing Vision, Changing Lives" training at Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind, Ferrario, 53, was living a life limited by her diminishing sight. She had to quit her job as a swimming instructor, left home sparingly and was dependent on her husband for outings.

"I became almost reclusive," the San Francisco-area resident said. She focused on cooking at home and church as her world continued to shrink.

But at the LightHouse training, Ferrario put on sleep shades so that she experienced full blindness. Then she learned to use a white cane to navigate, access technology on her phone and computer that reads documents for her, and discovered "blind etiquette."

"It was incredible," Ferrario said. "We did yoga without sight, swimming, organized our office, how to use a gadget to label stuff that will read back to you in your own voice…."

The immersion training was so liberating that Ferrario decided it was time to go back to work. It took five months but she found a job. In the meantime, she kept up contact with LightHouse. When the job became less than what she hoped, Ferrario had a conversation with the rehabilitation director.

At that point, LightHouse itself was undergoing a transformation. The agency was preparing to move into its new headquarters that included a teaching kitchen and it needed an instructor. With her love of cooking and experience catering church events, Ferrario eagerly said yes.

"It sounds a little corny but I’m a different person now," she said. "I'm excited to get up every morning and excited to meet new people. My world has expanded instead of continually narrowing."

The move to its new headquarters has been equally transformational for LightHouse. The organization, which attracts students from across the U.S. and internationally, has expanded its ability to help those who are blind or becoming so with additional programs and – for the first time – dormitories for students to stay for longer, more intensive training. In all, LightHouse will triple the number of students it serves to 10,000 a year.

"There’s a lot to learn, a lot of people to meet and that’s what the new space enables us to do," said Bryan Bashin, executive director of LightHouse and also visually impaired. "We have students in their 90s and we serve people across the age spectrum. We are serving international students as well. That’s why we are building capacity."

Those capacities include innovative training programs such Ferrario's teaching kitchen, a cutting-edge technology demonstration lab, a new tactile and talking maps production area and immersion training on how to navigate blindness for the newly vision-impaired.

"The immersion training is something that makes so much sense because it's so intense and you do it with other students," Bashin explained. "But then it’s so much more fun. Every blind person thinks that they are the only one this happens to, but to know that there is a community of people who are in your exact same situation makes it easier and makes so much that you thought wasn’t possible, possible."

LightHouse makes a point of pushing the boundaries of the seemingly impossible. The agency chose a blind architect, Chris Downey, to help design the space. It features a variety of textured floors to help students navigate more easily, lighting that students can adjust to fit their vision and close attention to acoustics to help users move agilely through the building.

Before its new headquarters opened officially in June, the 114-year-old organization had been operating in a renovated garage that was too small for the growing demand for its services. LightHouse identified the new space and then started rounding up the financing to acquire it.

With high property costs in San Francisco, it was tough going. LightHouse began exploring alternative options with U.S. Bank to purchase the space and bring it up to building codes. By working with our U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC), LightHouse was able to make use of federal New Markets Tax Credits.

"It was quite an instrument," Bashin noted. "In the end, this was worth $6 million to us. This allowed us to do a three-floor project rather than two. We have seen the New Markets Tax Credit really help disability organizations."

USBCDC also donated $50,000 to LightHouse for the build-out of a financial suite. The agency is designing a financial education program for high school students so they can learn early how to manage money effectively – a core pillar of our Community Possible corporate social responsibility program.

"U.S. Bank became donors and that’s remarkable. It’s always a positive note when your banker gives you something," Bashin said, laughing.

"It's easy to give," said Maria Bustria-Glickman, vice president of USBCDC, "when you have people who are doing so much for others."

Shera Dalin is a member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.