By Melissa Walker, Noozhawk iSociety Columnist

The Braille Institute Santa Barbara welcomed more than 100 guests to the fourth annual Festival of Flavors, with a signature fundraiser hosted by the Braille Institute Auxiliary at the institute’s campus nestled near the corner of De la Vina and West Mission streets.

The Braille Institute Auxiliary of Santa Barbara, founded in 1981, was formed by a dedicated group of community members to support the private, nonprofit organization that provides a wealth of cost-free Braille Institute programs and services for the blind or visually impaired.

This year’s event also was an introduction to the Braille Institute Santa Barbara’s new executive director, Susan Cass, who joined the organization this month.

“The Festival of Flavors was a wonderful opportunity to meet so many supporters of our organization and our efforts to empower those living with vision loss in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas,” Cass told Noozhawk.

“Braille Institute is an extremely valuable resource and one we are blessed to have in our community, and I look forward to increasing awareness of our mission and our programs in the months ahead.”

To date, the Braille Institute Santa Barbara has served more than 3,000 people of all ages, many who enroll in a variety of on-site classes designed to help students learn skills such as orientation and mobility training, and gain sensory awareness and independence.

“Our main goal at the institute is to see as many people who are experiencing vision loss, and provide them with resources, skills and support, so that they can continue to live fulfilling lives,” said Gloria Coulston, vice president of program delivery.

Guests mingled in the palm-lined courtyard and enjoyed live music by the Montecito Jazz Project, as a mixologist prepared a signature drink especially for the occasion. The inviting aroma of exotic spices and grilled poultry, mixing with other intoxicating flavors, beckoned guests inside a spacious cafeteria, where four tasting stations were set up and presented by Black Sheep, Blue Water Grill, Brazil Arts Café, Lure and Palace Grill, which donated their time and cuisine for the evening.

Coulston took a break from greeting guests and sat down with Noozhawk to share some of the essential programs and services that the campus has to offer, such as the single point of intake for new students, which is an introduction to Braille Institute services, Connection Pointe and library services and the Arts and Healthy Living classes.

“Our counselors provide an assessment, review doctor referral and discuss the emotional readiness to learn how to live with low vision, if the person has functional vision or is set with a low-vision consultation, which provides information on how to use their functional vision with devices, lighting and contrast,” she said.

“After referrals are made, incoming students are encouraged to enroll in popular classes, such as daily living skills that focus on technology and communication, emotional support, and art and healthy living.”
Braille Institute Santa Barbara students enrolled in the Kitchen Confidence Program served a variety of desserts cooked in the state-of-the-art kitchen.
Courses and services at Braille are specifically designed to help students overcome challenges and gain confidence and independence that is often tested when living visually impaired or dealing with vision loss.

“The Connection Pointe course, in conjunction with the library services, instructs students how to stay connected to the outside world by listening to podcasts, reading newspapers with digital players, and instruction on specialized technology and communication using mainstream devices like iPhones, plus specialized keyboarding, and learning braille for reading and writing,” Coulston shared.

The Braille Institute Library offers more than 800,000 fiction and nonfiction books available in audio, braille and large-print formats, with 65,000 books and 100 magazines available for download directly to computers and mobile devices.

Patrons also can access the free Telephone Reader Program to listen to daily local and national news in English and Spanish.

Emotional support classes cover topics and provide general support on how to live with vision loss. The Arts and Healthy Living classes include cooking, creative writing, music, vocal and instructional music appreciation, ceramics, watercolor painting, photographs and recreational activities, such as golf, swimming, walking, bowling and more.

The crowd gathered in the courtyard for a live auction hosted by auctioneer Geoff Green, followed by brief introductions from Braille Institute Auxiliary president Sandy DeRousse and Sydney Tredick, the event’s chairwoman.

Rousseau presented special guest speaker Dr. Dennis Clegg with the Braille Institute 2018 Award of Excellence for his ongoing research and studies of extracellular matrix and integrin function in the developing eye, and stem cell research with a focus on developing therapies for ocular disease.

Clegg thanked the Braille Institute and his research team in the crowd of onlookers for their support. He is founder and co-director of the UC Santa Barbara Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering.

Dennis Downing, left, with daughter Meghan, a Braille Institute Santa Barbara student, and Dr. Dennis Clegg, recipient of the Braille Institute's 2018 Award of Excellence.Meghan Downing, a 16-year-old junior at San Marcos High School, was diagnosed with a juvenile form of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease when she was 9 years old that caused her to go from perfect vision to being legally blind in six months.

“Losing my sight was a shock for me and my parents, who struggled to come to terms with this new change in our lives,” Downing said. “The Braille Institute assisted us with our needs.

“Before I was diagnosed, I was an avid reader, but after I lost my vision I was no longer able to read books, but the Braille Institute was a lifesaver by providing me with a free audiobook reader, which allowed me to enjoy reading books again, and the technology classes offered at the institute taught me how to use both Apple and PC computers.”
Despite being visually impaired, Downing has thrived academically and socially through her determination combined with the support of the Braille Institute — evolving into a natural teacher, leader, musician and athlete.

She is a member of the San Marco High swim and water polo teams, and is president of the a cappella choir, and lead singer in a local band called 745.

“I play solo guitar, sing at private events and I’m also a ukulele and guitar teacher,” Downing said. “I am also sponsored by a guitar company called Grace Harbor.

“I am working on getting my Gold Award with the Girl Scouts, and for the award I am planning a ‘Dining in the Dark’ benefit dinner, where all the proceeds will go toward Dr. Clegg’s stem cell research at UC Santa Barbara.”