Chautauqua Blind Association Celebrates Ten Years of ‘Dining in the Dark’

Dinner guests being led by sight guides to their table.
Dinner guests being led by sight guides to their table.

Empathy is one of humanity’s most valued qualities; an ability to experience the world in the shoes of another.

Ten years ago, an idea for a unique fundraiser was presented to the Chautauqua Blind Association, one that would ask attendees to step outside their comfort zone and engage in an exercise in empathy. Taking the chance to bring this innovative experience to Jamestown, the CBA’s Board of Directors organized the first event in 2002. A decade later, the annual fundraiser continues, and what makes it such a success year after year remains the community’s support.

Dinner guests at the annual 'Dining in the Dark' Event.
Dinner guests at the annual ‘Dining in the Dark’ Event.

A Unique Experience

Many individuals find themselves affected by vision loss or blindness. Those who may not experience it themselves know a loved one, student, client or patient that live each day without vision. ‘Dining in the Dark’ goes beyond a traditional fundraiser; it is an event that encourages attendees to connect more personally with those living ‘in the dark’. Executive Director Lisa Goodell credits the event’s success to the individuals that attend: family, friends, eye doctors, professional eye care staff, and community members who support the work of the Chautauqua Blind Association and those they serve.

The 10th Anniversary ‘Dining in the Dark’ event will be held on March 27 at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel. The evening begins at 6 pm, where guests are invited to socialize and enjoy a cocktail hour, before moving on to the night’s meal. Prior to entering the dining room attendees are blindfolded.

Students from the Occupational Assistance Program at JCC and the Healthy Professions Club at SUNY Fredonia volunteer as sight guides, assisting each table in finding their seat and navigating their meal. This innovative partnership not only provides students the opportunity to learn and gain course credit, it illustrates another aspect of life with vision loss or blindness. Sight guides play an important role in assisting those living with vision loss adapt to daily activities, such as eating.

Attendees also include CBA clients, many of whom are happy to share with others their experiences. As Goodell states, “We want them [attendees] to experience what those living with vision loss or blindness do, and show that everything you’ve done before, can still be done. Life changes but it doesn’t have to end.”

One of the items to be auctioned off at the event; painted by a CBA client.
One of the items to be auctioned off at the event; painted by a CBA client.

A Great Need

‘Dining in the Dark’ raises funds each year in support of one of CBA’s vital community services, the Youth Vision Screening Program. Running for over 40 years, the program assists school districts in both Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County conduct vision screenings for students at no cost. The focus is on students aged three to six, however students of any age can be screened.

The goal is to determine if a young student falls within the normal vision range for their age; if they do not, the CBA works to ensure they receive appropriate treatment referrals.

The CBA is a United Way Partner, receiving funds from both the United Way North and South county organizations. However, ‘Dining in the Dark’ assists by covering additional costs associated with the screening program. The state of the art equipment, which can screen a child’s vision in less than 20 seconds, is quite expensive, leaving most schools unable to cover the costs themselves. The program provides a fantastic partnership that benefits children county wide.

In 2019 over 4,000 children were screened. 15% showed signs of a visual issue. The CBA works with these children and their families to connect them to a local vision care specialist.

“A young child has no clue they are seeing different than you and I. Often vision issues do not get discovered until they leave kindergarten. [The goal] of the program is to get children a vision examine, and often we find that they may have a vision issue not a behavior issue” shares Goodell. “We hope to identify children between the ages of three to six, so issues can be identified at a young age.” In addition to working with local school districts, the CBA also works with local home-schooling associations, summer literacy programs, libraries and churches with the aim of screening every child in the county.

Vision for the Future

In 2019 statistics from the Vision Screening Program showed that many of the children referred to vision specialists were the same children year after year. Many children do receive a more comprehensive exam, however the CBA recognized that low-income families may not be able to afford appointments, new glasses or other treatments necessary.

Goodell approached the board with the idea for a new program, titled ‘Sight for Success’. Working with local eye care professionals, the program directly provides funding for children that do not pass the vision screening and are in need of financial assistance.

The program was moving forward successfully when the CBA suffered a great loss, the passing of local optometrist Dr. Timothy Grace. In his honor, the community was encouraged to make donations to the United Way to fund programs Dr. Grace lived passionately for. Looking to contribute to such a cause, the United Way approached the CBA seeking to provide memorial donations in support of the organization’s programs. With the newly established ‘Sight for Success’ program underway, it seemed a natural fit. In addition, Dr. Grace’s family made a generous donation towards the new program.

The CBA is excited to formally announce the programs new name during this year’s event, ‘The Dr. Timothy Grace Sight for Success Program’. Goodell enthusiastically reports, “Thanks to the community, this program will run for many years to come.”

An Event Not to Miss

In addition to the unique dining experience, attendees will also get the chance to participate in a silent auction. This year, three items will be offered, all with special ties to the community the CBA works with. These items include a queen sized quilt, handmade by a CBA client’s wife; a print of a painting created by a client who is legally blind; and a four-foot, hardwood wine rack crafted by a client with vision loss. As Goodell reiterates, these items illustrate that life doesn’t stop for those living with vision loss; rather it continues to be full of creativity and beauty.

The CBA will also be sharing the Louise Tefft Award in honor of Lousie Tefft, a client of CBA for over 30 years. Louise was a prime example of a life well lived, working with trained sight guides and staff that assisted her in adapting to daily tasks. She remained in her home until the age of 102. This year Kathy and Timothy Grace will be honored with the award for their life-long support and inspiration.

The CBA extends a special thanks to this year’s 2020 sponsors UPMC Chautauqua, HomeTown Insurance, Weber Knapp, Chautauqua Chemical and Ahlstrom Schaefer.

Reservations for ‘Dining in the Dark’ can be made by March 18. Tickets are priced at $65 per attendee, and includes a 3 course meal. Visit www.chautauquablind.org or call 716-664-6660 for reservations.

Those who cannot attend the event, but wish to lend their support, are encouraged to make donations towards the Youth Vision Screening Program.