Lions Center for the Blind in Oakland to close after 74 years

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With the recent closure of Oakland’s 74-year-old Lions Center for the Blind, clients and staff alike are wondering how to move forward.

On August 31, the nonprofit center in downtown Oakland, located near the 19th Street BART station, was forced to close its doors due to insufficient funding. Now, according to Lions Center for the Blind CEO Michelle Taylor Lagunas, the organization’s administrative staff has no choice but to refer clients to another agency and help its team look for employment elsewhere.

“Despite the efforts that we’ve made to decrease expenses, our revenues just weren’t enough to sustain the organization,” Lagunas said.

The Alameda-Contra Costa Lions Central Committee for the Blind, which is the full name of the organization, was created in 1942 by six members of the Lions Club, the world’s largest service club. The center’s staff provided programs to individuals with vision loss in the Greater Bay Area, aiming to give clients the skills they need in their lives as well as the workforce.

Offering numerous classes including Braille and independent living skills—which train clients in personal care, financial management and other everyday actions—the center has also provided teaching and staff positions to clients and other visually impaired individuals within their own organization.

The center depended on donations, local funding and state Department of Rehabilitation reimbursement for income. According to Lagunas, the commercial real estate costs to rent the building, staff costs, and other agency operational expenses exceeded what was being brought in.

Lagunas said that before she took the CEO position four years ago, the agency took on an expensive lease which depleted the center’s resources. This, paired with the state Department of Rehabilitation reimbursement rates being frozen for 20 years, helped lead to the closing of the center, she said.

Caleb von Docto, director of services, is worried about the clients, as well as the visually impaired community at large, since the Lions Center is shutting down after so many years.

“It’s risky for the community that’s in the East Bay and beyond,” he said. “It’s a resource that people had access to for decades that they’re no longer having access to.”

The closure of the center cut some clients’ training short. A year and half ago, Elizabeth Raymer was referred to the center after being diagnosed as legally blind. She began training in computers and assistive technology—learning how to operate computers, screen readers and magnifying programs–and orientation and mobility, or learning travel safety techniques like using a cane or how to access public transportation. But her classes came to a swift conclusion.

“I’ve only had one lesson and now it’s going to end,” she said. “I need more because I’m applying for a guide dog.”

According to Lagunas, the center’s staff is working to give clients a smooth transition to another agency that is adept at aiding individuals with vision loss or deterioration. The Lions Center for the Blind’s board has not yet released the name of the organization they will be referring clients to, but they plan to announce it in the coming weeks.

Though the nonprofit center is closed for business, the administrative staff will remain in the building until October 31 to finish closing procedures. They will still answer the phones and door, but only to refer clients to the other agency.

While Raymer waits for a referral, she plans to continue her lessons. “I’m going to keep working on what I’m studying and hope that I’ll be able to continue it,” she said.

While the clients are being referred to another organization, the staff are currently on job hunts. Gerald Newell, a Braille instructor, has been working with the center since 1988 and now must find new employment.

“I’m sending out resumes right now,” he said. “I haven’t sent out a resume in 28 years.”

Newell plans on continuing to work with people who are visually impaired and guide them “to be as independent as possible.” He is keeping his options open and applying everywhere. But some instructors said they plan to try new things and take up different career paths altogether.

The administrative staff is also working to find jobs for the employees as well. According to Newell, no one has found secure employment yet.

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