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For blind kids, a future in flux

A program for blind children is in danger of being cut by the state. That's a big mistake, the parents say.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2001


A program for blind children is in danger of being cut by the state. That's a big mistake, the parents say.

LARGO -- The first-grade class at Ozona Elementary School, in the early stages of a study of Helen Keller, recently welcomed a special guest to talk about blindness.

Six-year-old Alex Follo walked in front of the students and listened to questions such as, "How do you tie your shoes?"

Such questions slightly annoy Alex, born with a rare genetic disorder that took away his sight. He's an expert at completing such tasks. As his mother retold the story, Alex grabbed the strings of his white Nike sneakers, pulling them into two big bows and lacing them together.

Alex, his mother boasts, is a normal child. He, too, attends first-grade classes at Ozona. His first gymnastics lesson is scheduled for Wednesday. Alex's mother believes much of the credit for his progress goes to a state program called Blind Babies, which gives $96,000 a year to the Watson Center, a facility that helps Alex and other blind children learn how to function just like their peers.

But a blistering report released last week by an office of the state legislature recommended that lawmakers stop funding the program, the only one of its kind in the nation.

Blind Babies, the report says, is subject to poor administration by the state Division of Blind Services. Providers like the Watson Center, the report says, were given little guidance by the division. The report also accuses the division of poor record keeping, noting that providers were not required to give progress reports during the past fiscal year.

The threat to eliminate funding stunned parents who send their children to the Watson Center.

"They got us ready for the real world," said Alex's mother, Tammy Follo, 41, of Palm Harbor. "Alex could not have accomplished what he has accomplished if not for the services they have here."

"I couldn't believe it," said Katherine Cartier, 40, of Largo, who joined other parents in pushing the Legislature to create the Blind Babies program.

When asked how the Watson Center would continue serving the children without the funding, its president and chief executive officer, Leonard Van Noord, was blunt.

"We don't," he said. "We can't."

Created in 1996, the Blind Babies program gives $1-million each year to 10 different organizations that serve blind children from infancy to age 5. The Watson Center is the only facility in Pinellas County that gets Blind Babies funding. It serves 26 children. There are five employees who work with the children. The parents do not have to pay to send their children to the center, but they are strongly encouraged to attend the therapy sessions so they can apply what their children have learned at home.

Cartier's son, Kyle, has been coming to the center since he was 8 months old to get occupational and physical therapy. Born more than three months premature, Kyle has only slight vision in one eye and none in the other. The sessions have helped Kyle find his way around the house and boosted his self-esteem.

"My son is going to go to college and he's going to be an independent adult," Cartier says confidently. "Without the support, I can't see him where he's at today."

The Watson Center is tucked away to the north and west of the overpass construction on Bryan Dairy Road and 66th Street. Formerly known as the Pinellas Center for the Visually Impaired, it is a maze of long hallways. It has been helping blind Pinellas County residents since 1956.

There are adult computer labs with Braille on the keyboards and a children's work area featuring a merry-go-round, a swing, a dozen Teddy bears, pictures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and flashy toys that play nursery rhymes and flash different colors when you press the buttons. It doesn't look like much work, but the casual observer should not be fooled.

Nancy Montcalm, a vision teacher and mobility instructor, sits in front of 14-month-old Matthew Stevens, holding the toy that plays the nursery rhymes. Matthew has "fleeting" vision and a seizure disorder that stunted his motor skills. Montcalm wants the boy to touch the buttons, hoping he will look to the flashing lights atop the toy. The exercise is also done to enhance Matthew's other senses and to help improve his motor skills.

"There you go," she says, guiding his pudgy hand to the toy. "Good job, little buddy."

Matthew gets 30 minutes of vision therapy a week at the Watson Center.

He gets another half-hour from the Pinellas Association of Retarded Citizens, an example of another concern cited in the Blind Babies study: duplication of services.

Montcalm dismisses that worry.

"We can duplicate this 10 times over and still not give the same services sighted children have," said Montcalm.

But Watson Center officials admit there is some merit to the report's findings. So does state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, which took command of Blind Babies from the state Department of Labor and Employment Security in January.

"While there were administrative errors and oversights, great strides have been made to establish goals, training, standards and monitoring," he wrote in a letter to the office that put together the report. "It would be a travesty to curtail this program when it is just coming into its own."

Two-year-old Elijah Cross begins his weekly one-on-one session with Montcalm by walking through the hallways of the Watson Center to the rear parking lot. Elijah, who has little vision, is given a pre-cane, a device similar to a walker. Montcalm guides the boy by the sound of her voice to the parking lot. He loves the sound of delivery trucks, moving his pre-cane in the direction of the roar of the trucks.

The pavement is bumpy, which causes Elijah to fall a couple of times. Montcalm wipes the dirt from his knee and encourages Elijah to continue walking. When he first started coming to the center, Elijah would reach out for Montcalm, hoping she would grab him in her arms and carry him to safety.

That's not going to happen anymore.

Falling down. Getting up. Elijah must learn to become independent, she says.

Elijah gets up and moves forward with the pre-cane.

The report concludes with a list of recommendations if state lawmakers decide to continue with the program by fiscal year 2001-02. They include hiring a case manager to prevent duplication of services and creating a formula to track the progress of the facilities that get funding.

Elijah's mother, Melinda Cross, said she was interviewed by the workers who put together the report when they came to visit the Watson Center. Elijah's twin brother, Caleb, born blind, is also in the program.

Cross was reluctant to come to the Watson Center.

"I wanted to stay in my own little world," said Cross, 34.

Now, she can't imagine where her children would be without the program. They can spoon-feed themselves. Elijah knows his shapes. They can find the drawers in their bedroom.

"It's amazing what they have taught them," she said.

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