Funding a Family Passion
Jessika Whitmire Cano, director of senior outreach for the M&M Whitmire Family Foundation, taught her daughter how to write her name in Braille on World Braille Day in January. It was the perfect expression of the foundation’s two biggest passions – children and seniors – and showed the foundation’s deep commitment to the organizations it funds.
Society for the Blind has been the grateful recipient of $91,000 from the foundation over the last five years for our Senior IMPACT Project. This project empowers people age 55 and older with alternative, non-visual techniques and skills that enable them to perform day-to-day tasks and activities so they can maintain or increase independence.
“I grew up in a senior-oriented family,” Jessika said. “My grandparents helped raise me when I was younger because my parents traveled a lot. Both of my grandparents needed care, so at a young age, I was in and out of senior homes and convalescent homes. I’m a full believer in intergenerational relationships. It’s a lost art.”
Jessika also can relate to Society for the Blind’s work with vision impairment – she was born cross-eyed and had surgery to partially correct it at just 4 months old. She has participated in eye therapy her whole life, but will always have double vision called strabismus.
“There is such a broad spectrum of vision impairment that a lot of people, both young and old, can relate to what Society for the Blind offers,” Jessika said. “People make it seem like vision loss is the end of the world, but seeing what people are capable of and can achieve during and after vision loss is amazing.”
When Jessika turned 19 years old in 2003, she began working part-time for her parents’ family foundation in Granite Bay that was created in 1996 to help local at-risk children. She immediately requested that they begin funding senior programs as well. While continuing to fund local after-school programs, food and shelter for children, and playground restoration projects, the foundation decided to expand its mission to include senior care.
Working with her sister, Gina Black, who serves as executive director and holds the foundation’s only other paid position, Jessika researches grant applicants and works with Gina to make presentations to their board of directors that includes both of her parents.
“I grew up in a family with a lot of passion for helping the community,” Jessika said. “My mom helped fund and open the Granite Bay Library. My dad was an amazing worker who came from lower socioeconomic status and eventually owned his own company. I’ve never heard anything negative from people who worked for him, and it’s awesome to see what he has become and what he loves. I have so much pride in seeing their legacy while they are still alive.”
Jessika worked for the foundation through college where she dealt with learning disabilities from her vision. Eventually, she obtained a master’s degree in gerontology from San Francisco State University and worked in medicine management at senior living homes. She helped the foundation work with the Alzheimer’s Association over the years and fund Sutter’s rehab facility in Roseville in 2007. A resident of Loomis, Jessika lives with her husband and four children, now dedicating her career solely to the foundation’s work with seniors.
The foundation’s funding has been pivotal for our Senior IMPACT Project, which includes an eight-day retreat offered monthly at Society for the Blind that gives seniors an immersion experience where they learn alternative techniques and skills to travel safely, efficiently and independently. They practice alternative techniques and use adapted tools to perform tasks of daily living including cooking, cleaning, shopping, home maintenance, organization, personal finance and more. They learn how to use the latest in assistive technology to operate computers and mobile devices for home, school and work, and they learn Braille. Participants receive individualized attention from instructors and mentors who are blind or low vision, and they have the opportunity to join in discussion groups with peers on issues around vision loss and participate in community activities. For those unable to attend retreats, Society for the Blind sends instructors to their homes to teach skills and offer resources. The Senior IMPACT Project includes monthly peer support groups for English and Spanish speakers and workshops throughout the year.
One of the things Jessika values most about her family’s foundation is the hands-on nature of the relationships she has built with local nonprofits over the years. Jessika had the opportunity to attend one of our Senior IMPACT Project graduations a couple of years ago.
“Just seeing how the staff and volunteers made the participants more at ease and comfortable with their new life was just beautiful,” Jessika said.
Jessika also noted how impressed she has been with how quickly Society adapted its services for online learning when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Shari really should run a school with how quickly and smoothly they turned everything around for online learning,” Jessika said. “Society for the Blind was one of the few organizations that we saw really stay present during the pandemic. An occasional hiccup in services would be natural, especially with a transition like that, but I have yet to find one at Society for the Blind. I’m just amazed at how much they are able to provide for a huge spectrum of issues.”