DENVILLE, NJ -- Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey pivoted from in-person to virtual programs to keep participants — many of them at high risk for the virus — safely connected.

“The online programs have been well-received and are helping seniors and others with vision loss ward off isolation and maintain physical and emotional health,” VLANJ Executive Director Kris Marino said. During the spring and summer sessions, more than 100 people a week joined online classes, and that number is expected to at least double in the fall, she said.

The Grotta Fund for Senior Care awarded VLANJ nearly $10,000 in COVID-19 relief funding. The grant allows VLANJ to provide Beyond Sight wellness classes, peer support groups and technology-focused offerings over Zoom video conferencing through the end of 2020, at no charge to participants. 

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“Grotta is honored to support Vision Loss Alliance’s continuing and expanding virtual programming, which is reaching an at-risk population with opportunities for physical and mental wellness and social connectedness, and to learn technology,” Grotta Fund for Senior Care Executive Director Renie Carniol said. The virtual offerings increased participation by 54% compared to in-person sessions.

The Grotta Fund for Senior Care is a community advisory fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ and supports older adults and their families living in Essex, Union, Morris, Sussex and eastern Somerset counties. 

“We are grateful to the Grotta Fund for recognizing the value these programs, especially during the ongoing pandemic,” Marino said. Most VLANJ participants are seniors, and three-quarters of them live below the poverty line.

VLANJ’s online offerings have allowed former participants living in distant counties and out of state, homebound seniors, and people lacking transportation options to enroll, Marino said. Enrollment increased from 65 people a week attending in-person classes to 100 a week online, she said.

“We expect a big increase in fall enrollment as word spreads about the free, accessible-from-home programs that empower people with vision loss and inspire social connection,” Marino said. The Grotta grant will allow VLANJ to upgrade its Zoom account and contact participants who struggle to call in or log into sessions, Marino said.

Registration for VLANJ’s Virtual fall session begins Aug. 31, with classes starting on Sept. 14. To register, send a message to BeyondSight@vlanj.org or contact Senior Program Manager Linda Groszew at lgroszew@vlanj.org or (973) 627-0055, ext.1312.

Now and Zen Yoga, Mindfulness and Meditation, Back to Basics, and a self-advocacy class are among the virtual offerings, Marino said. VLANJ also launched Tech Talks, a monthly webinar that covers a different technology topic each month. In addition, the nonprofit has introduced an online pilot of its Technology Learning Lab to train participants in the use of computer operating systems and software for text magnification and screen reading.

The risk of vision loss increases with age, and adults 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of U.S. residents. “The need for low-vision services will only increase as the population ages,” Marino said. The National Eye Institute projects the number of people with visual impairment or blindness in the U.S. will double to more than 8 million by 2050.

Started in 1943, VLANJ is one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults who are blind or visually impaired. The organization builds participants’ independence and confidence, and creates a space for friendships to flourish. VLANJ also educates the wider community about the challenges of vision loss and how sighted people can serve as advocates. For more information about VLANJ, visit vlanj.org.

About Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey

Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey is a 501(c)(3) that provides practical training and emotional support to help those who have experienced profound vision loss regain self-esteem and self-reliance. Since its founding in 1943, Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey has used a holistic approach to empower those with profound vision loss to live engaged, productive and independent lives. Go to vlanj.org for more information.