Navigating a seeing world with a white cane is a bitter life for some.
But not Mac Coates.
His cheerfulness is contagious despite a genetic eye disease that deprived him of sight in his youth, leaving him in permanent darkness.
“I’m happy because I’ve learned to use my independent living skills. I’m glad I can do things on my own, ”said the 71-year-old Pittsburg resident.
Coates was in his late twenties when progressive loss of peripheral vision forced him to quit his job as a French fries cook because he had a reputation for being accident prone.
He turned to the State Department of Rehabilitation for help, who taught him how to orient himself with a cane and sent him to community college. Coates found work as a substitute special education teacher and eventually graduated with a four-year college degree.
When he moved to Pittsburg in 2008 and contacted the state again to find an organization offering social activities for the blind, Coates was referred to the Lions Center for the Visually Impaired.
During his tour of the Pittsburg facilities, he stopped by an exercise class, arts and crafts class, and a whimsically named “Cooking Without Looking” class.
Coates has been sold.
“I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
Over the years, Coates has made field trips to East County with other Lions Center clients – visiting a Brentwood ranch for a picnic and hay rides, Contra Regional Park Loma and the Delta Bowl in Antioch, and the County Fair where members of the 4-H club introduced the group to the animals on display. Participants went cherry picking in local orchards and once even tried their hand at archery, shooting targets using arrows with suction cups on the ends.
The Lions Center for the Visually Impaired mainly serves residents of Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano, the vast majority of whom are 55 years or older and have low incomes.
The agency received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual vacation campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The Pittsburg organization will use its grant to help provide diagnostic and early intervention services, assisted living, group classes and other programs.
In fiscal year 2019-2020, 1,735 clients took advantage of the organization’s hands-on help, which includes free glasses for people with mild vision loss as well as nursing home screenings. and centers for the elderly. Along with the exams, participants can get on-site diagnoses of conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts.
Employees will visit homes to reconfigure the space so customers are less likely to bump into furniture. They can also apply raised knobs to flat surfaces like a microwave oven or landline keypad so customers can use these devices more easily, and sometimes show people how to cook without getting burned. .
Coates’ mentors helped him find the stairwell exit in his apartment building as well as the elevators and the dining room right after he moved in.
“It’s really about tailoring (services) according to need,” said Managing Director Yolanda Braxton.
Transportation assistance can mean finding bus routes on behalf of a customer, showing someone how to use the Lyft and Uber phone apps, or providing training on how to use a cane.
The Lions Center also has a lending library where patrons can borrow audiobooks and CCTV magnifiers, devices that allow users to continue to enjoy hobbies like reading, crossword puzzles, and embroidery. magnifying activities on a screen.
And what it doesn’t provide, it can connect customers with organizations that do, whether that’s assistance dogs, home meal delivery, someone to feed and walk. a pet or psychological counseling.
For Coates, the association is also a hub of friendship.
Each week he calls on the 90-minute activity and event group, which includes a stretching or Tai Chi session followed by topics such as how to find accommodation for people with disabilities. He also attends weekly support sessions where participants discuss concerns surrounding their loss of sight in a compassionate setting and exchange ideas.
“It means the world to me,” he said of these chances to socialize.
He served on the Lions Center board of directors for years, and Coates has taken on the unofficial role of cheerleader for those who have recently lost their sight.
He greets new clients with an empathetic ear, learns their story, and encourages those who may have had to quit jobs they loved and now feel a lack of motivation.
“A lot of them aren’t positive, some of them are bitter,” Coates said. “I let them know that there is life after blindness. I can relate to people with similar issues. I encourage them to take independent living skills training… to get involved in something that will get them out of the house.
Dennis Deschler was one of those who finally quit his job as a disability counselor in August 2017 after several surgeries failed to correct the protruding retinas in both eyes.
After moving to Brentwood two years ago, the 63-year-old contacted the Lions Center seeking companionship among those who would understand his life experiences.
“I wanted to be part of the society of the blind. I wanted to be with people (who) can relate to me. It’s just more comfortable, ”Deschler said.
This is exactly what he does in the virtual group meetings he attends on Tuesdays, where participants can do breathing exercises or meditation and play musical quizzes.
“Once a week is my time with people like me,” Deschler said.
Share the spirit
The Share the Spirit vacation campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, brings relief, hope and opportunity to East Bay residents by funding non-profit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or post the coupon.