Wanda Woodson (right), a former employee of The Blind Relief Fund of Philadelphia, takes Mary Washington, a client, food shopping. (Photo by Ed Eckstein)

by Carole Verona

Imagine being homeless and living as a squatter in a boarded-up, condemned house with your 14-year-old son and a stray cat. Add to that the fact that you are legally blind and an amputee. When Stephen J. Harris, president of the Blind Relief Fund of Philadelphia, based at 551 Walnut Lane in Roxborough, got a call from a social worker about the situation, he immediately pulled his staff together and put the wheels in motion to help.

He contacted Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, in whose district the homeless woman was living, and asked her to find a place for the woman to live. Harris then sent out Sheila Hamilton, a case manager, to further assess the situation. Within hours, the Blind Relief Fund purchased food and other necessities for the woman and her son.

On another occasion, a client who was released from the hospital arrived back home to find out that her house had been broken into, and everything was gone. When she called the Blind Relief Fund, Lisa Rivera, transportation manager, immediately went food shopping and delivered groceries to the client’s home. By dinnertime, the client had everything she needed.

Founded in 1909, the Blind Relief Fund of Philadelphia assists the impoverished, legally blind residents of Philadelphia, helping them to live independently in their own homes despite their disadvantaged circumstances.

The monthly income of clients served by the Blind Relief Fund is approximately $630 a month, well below the poverty guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. “Many of our clients are also plagued by other afflictions, such as diabetes. And many of them serve as heads of households, supporting children and grandchildren,” Harris said.

Privately funded, the Blind Relief Fund does not depend on monies from government or public agencies. Because of its independent status, its staff of six can easily cut through bureaucracy and red tape to provide quick solutions to the problems of its 425 clients.

The organization’s services fall under five general headings: telephone visitation, home visitation, financial assistance, transportation and social activities. A telephone visitor calls several clients a day to check on their emotional, physical, and financial condition. “This phone call also helps to combat the loneliness and isolation that many of our clients experience,” Harris noted.

In 2012, 679 in-home visits were made. A home visitor is able to see more — the client’s actual physical environment. Is the furniture adequate? What about appliances? Can the client perform everyday tasks? The home visitor also helps by reading mail, paying bills and filling out insurance forms and government paperwork.

Financial assistance takes several forms. One of the organization’s most popular programs is providing coupons to clients. Here’s how it works. “We purchase store coupons from local supermarkets. The value of this program is that it allows our clients to use the coupons to purchase anything in the store, including paper products which are not covered through government coupons,” Harris explained. He notes that blind people use a lot of disposable paper products — plates, cups, and towels — because they can’t see if these things are clean or still dirty, even after they wash them. It’s a simple chore of daily living that most of us take for granted and don’t even think about!

“Each client with a monthly income of $850 a month or less is eligible to receive $180 worth of coupons a year. We can increase the amount if a client has children or grandchildren living with them. Currently, we provide food coupons to about 40 percent of our clients. We spend between $20,000 and $30,000 a year on coupons. If we had to double that amount, it would certainly make a dent in our budget.

“Many of our clients also need basic furniture — a small table and a chair — so that they have a place where they can sit down and eat. And right now we have about 11 clients who need beds. The beds are generally donated, but we will go out and buy one if somebody’s mattress is shot or if we find out they have no bed at all and are sleeping on the floor.”

The Blind Relief Fund is also the only agency that provides free canes. “Canes are a big deal for a client who is mobile. We supply up to three canes per year to those who use them. Somebody who’s out there walking around the city can easily beat up several canes a year. We buy a very good cane, one that our clients like, and we keep a supply of three different lengths in our building. In addition to canes, we provide other visual aids, free of charge, such as big button phones, talking alarm clocks and talking watches.”

Like most non-profits, the Blind Relief Fund is facing huge challenges. “Our biggest challenge,” said Harris, “is to build up our investment account and attract funds so that we can continue to provide valuable services to the impoverished blind community. The crash of 2008/2009 took $1.5 million out of our account. We need to get that back. Several foundations put us on hold because they’re struggling, too. They’re not telling us they won’t help us. They’re saying they need more time before they will be considering us again.”

The director is quick to point out that through all of the difficulties with raising money, client services have not been cut back. “We’ve got a good handle on what’s going on with our clients. Those who are older, impoverished and mostly living alone don’t have much of a support network. WE become their support network.”

For more information about the Blind Relief Fund of Philadelphia, visit www.blindrelieffund.org or call 215-487-1444.