Senior IMPACT Project Celebrates 20th Anniversary

This week, Senior IMPACT Project staff and clients gathered for a holiday party and 20th anniversary of the program that empowers seniors with vision loss to maintain their independence.

The Senior IMPACT Project has grown substantially in the past 20 years, serving 569 new seniors across 14 Northern California counties in 2021-2022. Yet it all started with one small group of seniors with vision loss who were brave enough to try a 10-day intensive retreat to increase their independent living skills.

Priscilla Yeung, now Senior IMPACT Project manager, helped to design the program.

“We thought about all the collective experiences that a senior who was experiencing vision loss would need to help them move forward in their journey,” Priscilla said. “We wanted to address their feelings that come with vision loss, create time and space for them to share openly with others, experience accomplishments together and celebrate these milestones. We wanted to build friendship and mentorship, so they knew they were not alone, and then in turn could give back to their community. We wanted to help clients find purpose again in their lives.”

They created the first retreat, soon affectionally dubbed “boot camp for the blind.”

Each morning for 10 days, staff and students ate breakfast together. Clients divided into three rotating groups that went out in the community to learn and practice daily living skills, orientation and mobility, and technology. They used long white canes and learning shades designed to help them focus on other senses instead of any remaining vision. They began practicing inside the retreat house, and throughout the 10 days, traveled to movie theaters, farmer’s markets and restaurants. They learned beginning Braille, basics of phone dialing, and how to use a keyboard and screen reading software.

Each night, the group gathered in the living room for “fireside chats” to share ideas and congratulate each other on accomplishments of the day. Each client took turns filling an empty vase with marbles to symbolize each success.

“It was very busy, and we filled every minute of the day with learning, laughter and great conversations,” Priscilla said. “We built strong connections because when you’re with people for 10 days, you get to know each other really well.”

At the end of the retreat, a graduation ceremony was held where graduates gathered to count their collective marbles, resulting in tears of joy and pride. This first retreat became the model for the monthly Senior IMPACT Project 10-day retreat.

Shane Snyder, director of programs at Society for the Blind, says he looks forward to the graduation ceremonies where family and friends are invited to hear participants speak about their retreat experiences.

“These speeches are always tremendously moving, reflecting the remarkable shifts in attitudes and growth in abilities that result from the intensive training, mentorship and other support received during the retreat,” Shane said.

As seniors graduated from the retreats, they began returning for reunions.

 “We have annual reunions of graduates, and as the years have gone by, we have filled the house with hundreds of senior client alumni living their best lives,” Priscilla said.

Kathleen Shevlin, who manages Society for the Blind’s senior programs, has been particularly impressed by the number of seniors who have returned to become mentors.

“It’s been a privilege to assist clients to become senior mentor volunteers,” Kathleen said. “These are clients who have shown commitment to developing their skills and personal growth who then pass on what they have learned to their peers. They support and encourage other seniors by modeling skills and sharing their personal stories.”

Over the years, the program grew beyond the 10-day retreats to include even more intensive five-day retreats and community outings, such as to Apple Hill and Music Circus. Over the past decade, the Senior IMPACT Project launched its Spanish-speaking retreat and ongoing support group, a five-day retreat for people who are Asian and an ongoing support group, and the Black Americans Senior Support Group, all of which continue to thrive today. When the pandemic hit, staff contacted hundreds of clients and formed the still popular Coffee and Connect telephone support group.

“Coffee and Connect has become a community of seniors who happen to be experiencing their vision loss journey together,” Priscilla said. “It is authentic, vibrant and accepting.”

The Senior IMPACT Project has consistently adapted to changing times and needs, expanding its outreach and services to underserved communities, adding remote and in-home training and services for clients in more distant counties, and expanding its referrals to and partnerships with other organizations to meet medical, mental health, housing, financial and other needs. Retreats also have been adapted to provide both residential and day program options. In 2020, Society for the Blind opened the Carl R. Otto Annex, which includes a brand-new Senior IMPACT Project teaching kitchen.

To meet the ever-growing demand for services, the Senior IMPACT Project plans to expand its instructional and support staffing in 2023, as well as its partnerships.

“Strengthening existing partnerships with other service providers and establishing new collaborative relationships will be critical to meeting the wider needs of Senior IMPACT Project clients in the years ahead,” Shane said.

Kathleen notes that many clients are juggling challenges in addition to vision loss, including mental health, other disabilities, housing, transportation, lack of qualified caregivers, fixed incomes and more.

“Increasing our partnerships will balance out our own efforts to support the needs of a growing population of seniors struggling with vision loss in addition to other challenges of aging,” Kathleen said.

In the meantime, the entire Senior IMPACT Project team is proud of what they have accomplished in the past 20 years, as is Society for the Blind executive director Shari Roeseler.

“The Senior IMPACT Project is thriving today because of the dedication and innovation of the program staff,” Shari said. “We know the need for this program will continue to grow, so we are focused on building new partnerships with healthcare systems and other organizations. We also are so grateful to our individual donors, family foundations and corporate funders. These contributions coupled with the federal grant we receive for older individuals who are blind, and our newly established Dr. Paul & Alice Peterson Endowment, will make it possible for us to be well-positioned to meet the growing demand for the foreseeable future.”