The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind has been turning dark futures into bright beginnings for 77 years. This year those futures became mesurably brighter when the non-profit organization moved its operations from an old warehouse at 14th and U Sts. NW to a new, modern building at 1421 P St. NW.
In the eight months since the Lighthouse has come downtown, executive director Charles A. Feagan said, programs at the center and in the community have inccreased along with client referrals, staff morale and participation by the business community.
"We've run a couple os seminars to show how independent blind people are," Feagan said, "and we've gotten organizations and institutions to come to Columbia that would have never come to 14th and U Street.
For example, management and service personnel from the Ramada Inn in Tysons Corner - one of the corporation's four national training centers - recently participated in a seminar outlining how to effectively serve blind hotel and motel patrons. Blooming-dale's is participating in a similar program.
The new two-story building also has facilities that have enaabled the Lighthouse staff to host community breakfasts with local programs, the Lighthouse hopes business leaders will become aware of the capabilities and needs of blind persons.
In addition, the move has brought the Lighthouse closer to potential work for its clients. Local restaurants, such as The Flagship, Mayflower and Metropolitan Hotel, have contracted with Lighthouse to print menus in Braille, Feagan said.
Such contracts represent one source of funding for the Lighthouse; the rest of its finiancial support comes from private donations.
Programs for visually handicapped youth and senior citizens, that were not possible at the old quarters, have been instituted. An activities program, "Getting to Know You," was created as a social outlet for the elderly, and a home-based development program for infants and children, which also includes workshops at the Lighthouse, has been established to help parents recognize and respond to the needs of the blind child.
"We start with kids ten days old, or as early as we can get the referral," said Donna Zanik, supervisor of child services. "We desperately need to find the kids in this city. We think there are visually impaired. But we only know of about 10."
Zanick said parents witnessing signs of possible visual impairment, such as red and watery eyes , rapid eye movement, poor eye coordination or complaints of eye pain, can call the agency at 462-2900 for free information and referral service.
Feagan has only praise for the increased opportunities the move has given the Lighthouse. "This building has given us this visibility," he said enthusiastically. "It has opened up the doors."
In welcome contrast to the old, five-story building, the new facility has also shut a few doors. "At 14th and U Street we only has two enclosed rooms in the whole building," he explained.
Both the Loghthouse staff and clients share the director's enthusiasm. Pau West, director of the subcontracts department, moved happily among the manufacturing workers,supervising such diverse work as chair caning, book binding and production of telephone utility pouch belts. Working nearby were the general shop employees. These workers manufacture such items as dish rags, towels and laundry bags, said plant supervisor Martin Reich.
In the old building manufacturing employees were on separate floors, and some were even in a separate building down the block from the warehouse, Reich said. Now they can communicate while working, he said, they all take their lunch break together.
"We're just like one big, happy family," added West.
Carvin Solomon has been a longtime member of the Lighthouse family and a chair caner 22 years.
"It's a lot more convenient here than it was over there," said Solomon. "Everything is one floor except for the lunchroom. It's also convenient for the customers to bring in their chairs."
As Solomon spoke, his hands moved deftly through a finely woven pattern in the bottom of a cane chair. He said it would take him about three days to complete the pattern, but he added that he could finish seven less intricate chairs in a week.
Jerauld Vaughn, a music enthusiast, appeared lost in dreams of an evening at the symphony as he sat binding braille music books for one of the agency's contracts with The Library of Congress. Suddenly Vaughn called out that a page was missing. A few feet away employees reproducing the braille music sheets on a printing machine called a Thermoform took up the search for the stray page.
The shop area has 2,500 feet of under-ulilized work space, but Reich said he is planning several projects that will allow workers to use the space. Recently the center obtained an exclusive contract to make 450,000 belts used on mail bag trays. The center is also seeking work assignments involving heat sealing, he said, since it has obtained machinery used in plastic shrink wrapping.
"In this business you have to look toward the future," said Reich, who is constantly working to recruit new employees, upgrade salaries and increase productivity. "If you stagnate, you die."
That was the reason that attracted 87-year-old John Meshaw to the senior activities center at the Lighthouse.
"I want to wear out," Meshaw said. "I don't want to rust out like some old people do."
Earlier this year the vibrant Lighthouse worker, was named The District's Blind Worker of the year by a committee appointed by Mayor Washington.
Meshaw's face became animated, and his eyes even brighter, as he spoke of the ceremony held at the Washington Hilton Holtel and the award the mayor presented him.
"i felt pretty good. It was first time I ever, received an award of any kind. But for my age," he smiled, "I'm no going to complain."