Ivis Alverez has been facilitating the Hudson County Visually Impaired Program (VIP) since its inception in 2008 with $12,000 in annual funding from the Hudson County Office on Aging. This year that funding suddenly stopped, leaving the group high and dry.
Just over a dozen individuals from throughout the county are members of the program. All are visually impaired and most are seniors. They meet once a week in Union City in a room provided by the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark.
“We support one another in this group and we learn from one another,” said member Janet Jones. “If we didn’t have this group, we would be in a reclusive state.”
“Since I’ve joined this group I’ve gotten to make friends,” said Diana LaForge from Jersey City, who became a member in December of 2014. “We have BINGO boards with Braille and with raised print numbers so we can all participate. Also we gain knowledge about things I wouldn’t find out about otherwise.”
For example the program brought in speakers to demonstrate scanners that can read out loud, and introduced members to an annual dinner for blind people held by the Lion’s Club. Last year they brought in instructors for a self-defense class.
“The self-defense class is for blind people and it’s run by blind people,” explained Alverez. Unfortunately, the group can no longer afford sessions like that.
“We support one another in this group and we learn from one another. If we didn’t have this group, we would be in a reclusive state.” –Janet Jones
“I’m praying, hoping we can find another funding source to keep ourselves going,” said Alverez.
Seeking funding restoration
Up until this year, the Hudson County Office on Aging provided the $12,000 grant annually to VIP via Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Catholic Charities is descended from programs founded in 1903. “We’re a $50 million organization of Catholic charities,” said CEO John Westervelt. “We have 87 programs throughout Hudson, Union, Essex, and Bergen Counties, the territory served by Archdiocese of Newark.”
Among those programs are shelters, children’s programs, mental health programs, legal aid, immigration assistance, and more. Catholic Charities created the Visually Impaired Program in 2008 and hired retiree Alverez to run it, under current Program Manager Kelly Rooney.
“It was designed to be very socializing and recreation-oriented but really it has become very much therapeutic,” said Alverez. “People become encouraged. They become more outgoing.”
Paul Seals, 71, is a good example of that. “When Paul first joined the group he said to me, ‘I’m going to try it out and see if I like it, but don’t expect me to say anything,’” said Alverez. That was six years ago. Now Paul, who travels from the far end of Bayonne to attend the weekly meetings, is among the most outspoken of the group, with a sharp tongue and quick wit.
Contacted this week, County Freeholder William O’Dea was unfamiliar with the situation.
“Other agencies that have been defunded or reduced have come to our board,” he said. “All these items are voted on and there’s a public hearing. We allow those individuals to come to a meeting and speak and we generally try to find a way, if it’s a good program, to assist them, if not from this grant money then from other grant money or even county money.”
Often, the money comes to the county from federal block grants.
Jim Kennelly, a spokesman for the county executive’s office, did not return a phone call seeking an explanation.
O’Dea offered to take up the cause of finding some funding for the program. “Obviously programs for visually impaired, especially seniors, are very important,” he said. “If we can’t find $12,000 we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
Not enough to welcome everyone
Meanwhile the program continues to operate on a shoestring. “Really the blind population is being totally underserved,” said Alverez, pointing out that even VIP is limited to Hudson County residents ages 60 and above, due to restrictions that come with the funding. “We’d like to better serve the population by not just serving age 60-plus.”
Elias Mateo of Jersey City was initially turned down when he applied for the program because he was too young at the time. Once he hit the approved age in 2013, he readily signed on.
“They’re like family,” he said of his fellow members. “I consider them brothers and sisters.”
Mario Olivares is only 49 but was briefly a member of the group when some funding lapsed in late 2013. Since the restrictions were not in force at the time, he signed up. Today he still attends meetings, but as a guest.
He is one of several musicians in the group, singing and playing a portable keyboard.
Geraldine “Gerry” Van Liew is another keyboard player, leading singalong sessions with her fellow members.
Lisa Toro lost her vision 12 years ago, after raising three daughters. “I went to school with Ivis since 1956 in Jersey City,” she said. Toro writes songs, poetry, and nonfiction, and sings a cappella to entertain the other members.
Latoya Miller is the “baby of the group.” At 31, she is another guest, traveling from her home in Hoboken every week since 2014. “I enjoy it,” she said. “I feel comfortable. I have a good time and we sing and we socialize. It’s just so much fun.”
Laverne Ben-Mansel is one of the newest members, having only been with the group for about a month.
“I have a condition that’s quite painful and can be very isolating and I find coming to the group very uplifting,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of really nice friends and I would love to see the program continue and for me to grow with the program. It’s very helpful for me.”
“The VIP program is a very needed program,” said Westervelt. “It does so much for those individuals with visual impairments. It’s great to see them getting out of their homes and associating with other people. Unfortunately the county decided to restructure their funding this year. We’re out trying to fundraise to keep it going.”
To make a donation to the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark call (973) 639-6531.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.