Nine-year-old Mychiel Fair Jr. loves to count his Goldfish crackers out loud before popping them into his mouth. He feels around the top of his desk to make sure he hasn’t missed any, then picks up his little abacus with brightly colored beads and begins to count again.
“What colors are the beads?” a visitor to his class asks. He brings the abacus up to his face and after close examination announces: “Red! Blue!”
Like his classmates at the Foundation for Blind Children in Chandler, Mychiel’s vision is severely impaired. But he’s making steady progress in math, reading and his other subjects. Most of the children attend public schools and supplement their learning and development here, in programs that receive funding from Mesa United Way and other private and public sources.
In another classroom, younger children play in swings or feel for objects attached by Velcro to a low padded wall. Teachers and aides work one-on-one with the children, making sure everyone is engaged in an activity that will help them explore their surroundings without actually seeing objects. Touch and sound are their guides, but some can faintly see light, bright colors or general shapes.
Tristan Encinas and Casimir Grodecki are feeling and identifying objects in a box, and suddenly jump to their feet when they hear unfamiliar voices. With big smiles, the boys move toward the voices and thrust out their hands to greet their visitors.
Marc Ashton, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Blind Children, helps with the introductions. He loves leading tours of the cheerful, immaculate facility and explaining how he and his staff help their youngsters compensate for their vision loss, develop socially, intellectually and physically, and overcome any other impairments as well.
“Eighty percent of our children have other issues besides blindness,” Ashton explains. “They may have cerebral palsy or a disability that requires tube feeding. Most vision issues are brain related, not problems with the eyes. “
The largest percentage of the 2,000 children and teens served by the foundation at its three Valley locations suffer vision loss due to premature birth, Ashton says. But many of those youngsters enjoy progressive improvements in their eyesight as they get older, he says.
Ashton became active in the foundation 16 years ago when his own son, Max, was born blind, and then made a career switch to head the agency full-time. Today Max is a good student and wrestler at Brophy Prep in Phoenix.
“Our goal is to help every child, regardless of the extent of their disability, develop to their full potential,” Ashton says. “Many of our kids go on to college and to lead independent, productive lives. And even as adults, they know we’re always here to provide support if they need it.”
Ashton attributes the foundation’s success — 90 percent of youngsters experience measurable positive changes and all of them work toward goals in individualized plans — to his professional staff members and more than 300 dedicated volunteers.
The foundation is one of 23 partner agencies that receive funding from Mesa United Way’s Community Chest. To find out more about Mesa United Way, its programs and partnerships, and how you can help, visit www.mesaunitedway.org. For more information about the Arizona Foundation for Blind Children, visit www.seeitourway.org.
• Bob Schuster is a retired journalist and volunteer publicist for Mesa United Way.