A teenager preparing to enter university life for the first time.
A 26-year-old who composes music on computers and would like his own radio show.
A cancer survivor. A military veteran. Grandparents. A mother of three. A builder of custom motorcycles. A Crow Tribe member skilled in signing, story telling and sharing her heritage.
A 29-year-old learning to sew, and an 89-year-old doing the first stitches that she’s sewn in years.
The individuals from across Montana are diverse in their ages, histories and goals but drawn together by one thing. Each is totally blind or has severe vision loss.
They are among four Billings residents and 22 other Montanans who learned skills and strategies for more independent living at the four-week Montana Association for the Blind Summer Orientation Program.
The classes at Carroll College taught lessons from marking household items to identify them by touch to crossing busy streets when unable to see the passing vehicles.
Students shared their dreams, challenges and frustrations.
Some long to see the faces of children or grandchildren. Most hope to rely less on family and friends, while others are seeking or trying to hold on to careers in a visually oriented world.
Kay Stevens, the SOP director, regards the orientation program’s primary benefits as allowing students to “get around independently and be safe.”
This year’s courses included Braille, orientation and mobility, Aids to Daily Living, low-vision technology, computers, keyboarding, discussion, cooking, sewing, crafts, woodworking and exercise.
Learning is very hands-on, from trying out programs that read what’s on the computer screen to learning how to thread a needle that one can’t see to matching socks or identifying denominations of money.
In discussion classes, instructor Vicky Greany, who is fully blind, leads students as they share their experiences of sorrow, remorse, denial, anger and acceptance of their vision loss. For many, the experience is one of grieving.
Other classes build skills starting with simple things made complex by vision loss, things such as coordinating clothing colors, identifying cleaning supplies, shaving, even locating keyholes with your fingers so that a key may be inserted.
A funnel can help when pouring cereal into a bowl. Braille labels allow accurate measuring of ingredients for a cake. Special guides for knives or plunger-style choppers boost safety when cutting up vegetables.
Students attend classes from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., then go to assemblies with speakers who discuss services for low-vision residents, the Talking Books Library, eye disorders, special equipment for diabetics who have trouble seeing their glucose monitors, medication bottles and syringes for injecting insulin.
Evening and weekend activities include learning, exercise such as swimming or just celebrating the people at SOP.
Talent night included performances from a choirs or students and instructors, rock songs on a student’s saxophone, skits and jokes. Magoo Night brought laughter and cringes of recognition as participants shared humorous moments tied to their vision loss.
Between classes, students missing their own pets hugged Shadow, the guide dog of crafts/keyboarding instructor Rhonda Cochrane, of Anaconda, when the dog was out of harness and off-duty. And participants shared information about hooking up with programs to get such a helper and the orientation skills that the individual needed to qualify for a guide dog.
Safety around vehicles was a common topic of discussion, from dangers with vehicles pulling out unexpectedly in parking lots to traffic signals that don’t beep to let those who can’t see know when lights change.
Students taking orientation and mobility classes grew to appreciate intersections with curbs marked with crosshatching or upside-down metal bumps, known as truncated domes, that help them identify crossings by using their canes.
People with little sight learn to listen to traffic sounds to help them know when to cross streets safely. And students were surprised at the lack of engine noise to alert them to approaching hybrid vehicles.
The Summer Orientation Program started in the mid-1940s west of Helena and moved to Bozeman, then Great Falls before finding a base at Carroll four years ago. It operates once a year, with Montana Association for the Blind picking up the cost for students’ classes, lodging and food.
Students need to have an eye exam to verify their vision difficulty and be healthy enough to participate in the program.
The program usually attracts 22 or 23 students and about 20 staff members, including volunteers. Students have included lawyers, a doctor, a judge and more.
The cost usually runs about $75,000 a session, or about $3,700 per student. This year’s class was bigger than usual, so expenses probably will be higher.
Stevens has a long association with the state’s only residential educational program for adults who are blind.
Her mother, who was fully blind, went to the camp in 1948, and Stevens attended as a student in 1992 and 1993. She returned to teach cooking in 1994 to 1996 before becoming director.
Like many students over the years, Stevens, who lives in Great Falls, had always been very myopic. When she was 35, she started surgeries and laser treatments for glaucoma. She later had surgery to place an artificial valve in her eye, but lost all sight.
“I knew I couldn’t stay home and do nothing,” she said.
So, she went to college and took correspondence courses for the blind. She has retired after years working with Head Start.
SOP faculty members often are past students and others with their own vision challenges.
Instructors come from across the country. This year’s staff included Beverly Tully, from Louisiana, who taught Braille, and her husband, George, who coordinated the mobility instructors. Both have experience teaching blind students in their home state.
Other staffers and volunteers came from Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.
Stevens said finding orientation and mobility instructors is one of the big challenges because it’s such a specialized field.
“They’re always special people,” she said.
Costs are a concern for the program’s future, Stevens noted.
From the early years, calendars and student creations were sold and the money invested to help pay for the program. But the stock-market tumble ate into the investments set aside to fund the classes, and the program is now using principal as well as interest to survive.
“Our computers are old” and were used when the program acquired them, Stevens said.
Students need to be transported to sites for orientation and mobility and more because they don’t drive. And, Stevens said, the program could use a van.
“We’d take anything” — a loaner for a month or even a donated vehicle, she said.
This year, her brother, Ken Ulmer, came from Nebraska as a volunteer to help transport students, and others, including Greany’s husband, helped out.
The program could use new Braille machines and other equipment, including adaptive kitchen equipment, writing templates for the blind and games. Its sewing machines are used, and the materials for sewing classes, as well as yarn for craft work, are donated.
This year’s program included sales of quilts by current and former students, a raffle and auction to help raise money. And calendar sales are planned this fall.
The state’s Blind and Low Vision Services program refers some students for attendance because it’s less expensive than sending residents out of state for training.
And the state agency’s orientation and mobility and other experts at regional offices are stretched to serve clients across hundreds of miles. In Billings, for example, the office’s lone O&M instructor covers Miles City, Glendive and other Eastern Montana communities, too.
The Summer Orientation Program allows students to attend two years of month-long sessions, which are held the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July.
“Some would come every year, if they could, and they learn more the second year” after applying skills acquired at the program for a year between sessions, Stevens said.
“Just seeing the students grow. That is the most wonderful thing,” Stevens said.
Many are “so nervous when they come, but, by the time they go home, they’re just glowing.”
Billings Gazette Features Editor Chris Rubich participated in the recent Summer Orientation Program in Helena. Contact her at email@example.com or 657-1301.