Lighthouse offers work, hope for blind

Every morning Sandra Jean Cole wakes at 5 a.m., gets dressed and walks the 16 steps from her apartment to catch the bus.

Blind and 62 years old, Cole has earned the right to sleep later and stay around the house.

Instead she ventures out to the assembly line at Lighthouse Louisiana, a facility for the blind and visually impaired, to collect and package cups.

“I hear people say, ‘It must be terrible to be blind,’” Cole said. “Only if you let it be. You’ve got to live.”

Living for Cole means working. She worked at learning when she traveled from her home in Red River Parish to Baton Rouge to attend the school for the blind at Southern University. Then she worked raising children, going to college, then teaching special education at Ryan Elementary for 14 years.

Retired, with her children and her grandchildren grown up, she needed a place to work again.

In 2009, she heard that the organization known as Lighthouse for the Blind was going to open in Baton Rouge after nearly a century in New Orleans. She called them continuously until she was the first worker hired there when the paper cup plant opened two years later.

“She’s very persistent,” said Jenice Heck, assistant director of services for Lighthouse Louisiana. “She wouldn’t let us forget about her.”

Lighthouse Louisiana, a not-for-profit organization, opened in northeast Baton Rouge at 2773 N. Flannery Road at the end of July last year.

Its paper cup plant employs 35 people in two shifts, 17 of them blind, and the organization provides rehabilitation and educational resources for the blind and visually impaired at little or no cost. Lighthouse plans to increase its staff to 75.

“Working people gain self-confidence and gain hope,” said Heck, who is legally blind with a vision rated at 20/7,000.

Known as Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans for decades, Lighthouse Louisiana came to Baton Rouge looking for a location within the state to re-establish its paper cup factory, which moved from New Orleans to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, Heck said.

“This is definitely an under-served community,” Heck said. “This is one of the largest cities ... in Louisiana, and you don’t have a whole lot going on here to support the blind and visually impaired.”

Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans was well-known for its broom and mop factory, established to employ the blind and visually impaired. It now produces biodegradable deck swabs for the Navy and paper towels, all under government contracts. The paper cups made in Baton Rouge are designed to blend into a “desert environment” with the military in mind.

Part of the reason behind Lighthouse Louisiana’s name change — Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans remains its legal name — is that most of the people the organization serves are not completely blind, Heck said.

“When folks start to lose their vision, when they see the word blind, it turns them off.... For some people, coming to us for help is like admitting that their vision loss is significant, and that is a really hard thing to do for some folks,” she said.

At both the New Orleans and Baton Rouge offices, Lighthouse offers several services for the blind, and, after acquiring a contract with the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, the organization will also offer rehabilitation and training to the deaf, Heck said.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana Lighthouse offers rehabilitation, employment services and job training and a low vision clinic that helps train those with some vision to use modified computers and text-to-speech devices.

The door-to-door transportation service charges $5 for trips within a 10-mile radius, and the store sells gadgets and devices to help people with low or no vision, such as small talking boxes that tell what color a shirt is, or magnifiers and talking clocks.

“We’re not here to make money,” Heck said. “Nobody makes money in this industry. We’re here to serve.”

All of its services run with the goal of keeping the visually impaired employed, said Lonnie Stockwell, treasurer for Louisiana Lighthouse. About 4 percent of the population is visually impaired, he said, and 70 percent of that population is unemployed.

Work instills a sense of independence, which Cole said she treasures.

“I always told my children in elementary school, just because you are special, life does not give you a special ticket,” said Cole, who is full of inspirational quotes. “... You have to pay your utility bills. They are going to cut your lights off. You have to pay your water. You have to be the best you can be. You can’t expect anybody to give you anything.”

Cole, who was born with congenital cataracts, had a little vision as a child, but multiple surgeries left her with just light perception.

She “loves to run her mouth” and enjoys talking with Daniel Dupas who works next to her stacking and packaging cups.

Working, for Cole, provides an opportunity to show what the blind can do, and it shows the newly blind — or those who recently lost a majority of their sight — that life does not end with low vision or blindness.

“That’s what I tell newly blind people,” Cole said. “To me, I admire them the most. Because having had 20-20, it really must be very much a challenge, compared to a person who is born with low vision or blindness.... I don’t pity them. I admire them.”

Her crew — the morning shift at Lighthouse — is very close to one another, both the blind and sighted staff members, Cole said.

She said she enjoys working for a company that isn’t constantly testing her to see if she can perform her job.

“I walk in and they know I can’t see,” she said. “They know I do what I do.… They help people adjust and become citizens in society. This is our family.”