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Five Decades On, Center For The Visually Impaired Keeps Expanding

Though it's no stranger to the issues facing most nonprofits, CVI has been growing its range of services and its client base by investing in innovative new revenue streams like the ClearAnswer contact center, which does double duty as a service–providing jobs for a client populations suffering 70% unemployment.

Fifty years ago, a group of Atlanta parents searched for a solution to a shared problem: their children were visually impaired and, although they were being well-served by an organization known as the Foundation for Visually Handicapped Children, these parents knew their children needed more support if they were going to make a successful transition into adulthood.

In 1962 this group, led by George and Jean Henderson, created a new agency called Community Services for the Blind. There, they taught the skills their children would need as functional, employed adults, ranging from classes in Braille and other communication skills to everyday travel strategies for navigating their city and surroundings.

In the 50 years since they opened in a space donated by the Atlanta National Building on Peachtree Street, the original group has grown into the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI), with its own 47,000-square-foot facility in midtown Atlanta and rights to the title of Largest Comprehensive Fully Accredited Private Organization in Georgia; they’ve also been GCN members for nearly 20 years.

“I love this story,” said CVI President Subie Green, of her nonprofit’s origin. “It shows you what a group of committed volunteers can do.”

Building Skills, Building Confidence

Today, CVI serves more than 5,000 visually impaired clients annually through programs like the Florence Maxwell Low Vision Clinic, New View adult rehabilitative services, the BEGIN program for children under five, and the STARS program for elementary, middle and high school students. 

One of CVI’s greatest strengths is its simple ability to gather people with all levels of visual impairment in one physical space for learning, support and friendship.

With so many services available, client engagement starts with a simple question: What do you want to do? A child having trouble reading the blackboard might investigate the potential of a video magnifier; an adult losing his vision due to diabetes or glaucoma can join a support group to learn from others facing the same challenges; a senior citizen facing vision loss who nevertheless wants to keep living on her own can work with a certified teacher to learn new ways of doing everything from housework strategies to financial management.

“We’re dedicated to whatever stage of vision loss or part of life our clients are in,” Green said. “Now, we have clients from infancy to 105 years old. People are living longer and developing more age-related vision loss.”

Green said the greatest change in their programming has been to take advantage of emerging technology and the opportunities it has provided. “We have folks clamoring to learn how to use computers, iPhones and iPads,” Green said. “I never dreamed our BEGIN program [for children under 5] would be using iPads with apps for small children.”

Still, one of CVI’s greatest strengths is its simple ability to gather people with all levels of visual impairment in one physical space for learning, support and friendship. Because a client may be the only person at her school or workplace with a visual impairment, says Green, a gathering at CVI can be revelatory; as they hear from others in their community dealing with the same challenges, isolation gives way to identification and connection. Working with teachers and mentors who are also visually impaired also builds confidence and the sense that no one has to go it alone. CVI also charges for certain services, operates a store, VisAbility, catering to the specific needs of their clientele (which recently included Stevie Wonder) with items like talking clocks, Braille notetakers, stand magnifiers and even beeping soccer balls.

Seeking a ClearAnswer to Funding

CVI is no stranger to the issues facing most nonprofits: in an economy of diminishing state contracts, two-thirds of CVI’s yearly funding comes from individuals, businesses and foundations. Clients who are able are asked to pay for their services. 

Still, CVI is always looking for new funding sources to maintain and expand their programming. Working on strategic planning in 2008, CVI looked for a way to generate new revenue while addressing the unsettlingly high unemployment levels for people with visual impairment, which Green puts at close to 70%.

“Think about the pain we feel from unemployment rates, and multiply that by 10,” said Green. “We say that’s simply not acceptable. We wanted to do something that would employ people with vision loss, fund an expansion of our programs and show the community that people with vision loss can do real jobs and real work.” 

CVI started an Enterprise Task Force to talk with clients, learn what kinds of jobs those clients want, and research different business models. With the support of local foundations, donations from every one of CVI’s trustees and staff, and an expert with more than 25 years in the field, CVI opened their ClearAnswer contact center (what was once known as a “call center”) in mid-2011.

Employees are simultaneously listening to the computer, listening to the telephone, typing responses, and talking with the customer, all while staying one step ahead of the conversation.

ClearAnswer hired a number of former clients to work with customer by phone, email, fax and online chat. In many cases, employees are simultaneously listening to the computer in one ear, listening to the telephone in the other ear, typing responses on the keyboard and talking with the customer, all while staying one step ahead of the conversation.

“It’s exceeded our expectations in every way,” Green said of the endeavor. “People are excited about the opportunity to work with us, and we want to transfer that excitement to the community.”

In fact, GCN recently used the ClearAnswer contact center to support Georgia Gives Day, taking donations over the phone from people who didn’t have access to the internet or were having trouble with the website.

Green and her team are working on a proposal to hire five to eight more people this year, touting their 0% turnover rate (compared to the average national contact center turnover rate of 60%).

Starting Out and Moving Forward

Green’s work with visual impairment organizations started when her husband was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. Prior to her 12 years as president of CVI, Green served as a fundraiser with the Emory Eye Center and Vice President for Development at the Centers for Disease Control Foundation. Upon meeting with the CVI board chair about the position, Green was immediately impressed. “Board Chair Doug Garges was so passionate about the center, even though no one in his family lived with vision loss,” Green said. “I knew my skills in fundraising could make a huge difference in getting us into this new building and extending resources to people who have or are impacted in some way by vision loss.”

As CVI enters its next 50 years, service expansion is a top priority; one of the organization’s largest efforts will be to push beyond metro Atlanta, extending CVI’s resources into middle Georgia. They also hope to grow their Solution Fund, which provides support for people who can’t afford the simple vision equipment capable of drastically improving their quality of life, and to expand ClearAnswer into a larger enterprise. 

Green is gratified to note that the decades-old mission of George and Jean Henderson to provide the visually impaired with a roadmap of life skills, and improve their quality of life, has lost none of its power. “I receive fan mail every day from people who say how much they appreciate CVI and notice how confident they are becoming with their vision loss,” Green said. “No matter their situation, our mission is to encourage them and help them learn to adapt and become more confident.”

Although Green is excited about CVI’s future, she will be retiring in June 2013. “I’ve had the most wonderful job in the world and I have great anticipation for the opportunities a new president will bring to extend and continue our mission at CVI.”

For more information on the Center for the Visually Impaired, visit cviga.org. CVI also has published their special Blind/Sight exhibition online. This photography exhibit tells the stories of individuals living with varying types of visual impairment and uses visual representations of what these people are actually able to visually perceive.

Tom Zimmerman is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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