Her eyes covered by a black sleep mask, 10-year-old Olivia Carolan stabbed her fork into a plate of food, testing the different textures before bringing a forkful of something soft to her mouth.

“What did I just eat?” she blurted after swallowing a mixture of seasoned rice and spinach.

Carolan was one of more than 130 guests to experience Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey’s first Dining in the Dark, a fundraiser that gave people with sight a glimpse of what it is like to live without vision.

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When guests settled in the dining room at the Hyatt Regency Monday evening, Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey Executive Director Kris Marino told them about the nonprofit’s nearly 75 years of empowering adults with severe vision loss, teaching them skills to regain their independence and thrive. Vision Loss Alliance is one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults with vision loss, and the only comprehensive, nonresidential vision rehabilitation program for adults in New Jersey.

Then Marino said, “It’s time to put on your learning shades and focus on your other senses.” Nervous laughter followed.

When the first course arrived, Bob Skea carefully touched his plate, discovering several small items. “It’s finger foods so we can just jump right in here,” said Skea before taking a bite of a tiny quesadilla.

Things got trickier when the main course arrived.

Vision Loss Alliance volunteer Susanne Sytsma and participant Deloris Wright, both blind, were among 18 Vision Loss Alliance ambassadors who helped guests navigate the meal. Using clock references, Sytsma directed Skea to the chicken at 6 o’clock on his plate, the salmon at 12. Then she instructed him on how to slice off pieces: reverse his fork, sink it into the edge of the meat and then use his knife.

While some diners gave up on their learning shades, Mary Tremmel and Chuck Apelian patiently worked through the courses without peeking.

“I’m trying to get the whole experience,” said Tremmel, who found fixing her coffee especially challenging. Tremmel is an occupational therapist at a nursing home, and some of her clients have severe vision loss, she said.

“I may go home hungry tonight!” Apelian joked, as he moved his fork around his plate searching for the next bite.

The meal was a messy experience for some. One guest stuck his fingers in pats of butter while reaching for his roll. Most people drank water, although a few risk-takers opted for red wine. Rubber bands had been wrapped around pepper shakers so guests didn’t mistake them for salt.

When Paula Jones finished her meal, which included a chocolate lava cake, she proudly displayed her heavily stained linen napkin. “This wasn’t easy,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing this every day of my life.”

Sytsma and Wright said eating without sight becomes second nature. Meals they prepare at home aren’t difficult at all. “I know where I put the food on the plate,” said Wright, who lost her vision to glaucoma 25 years ago.

Marino explained that more than 160,000 New Jersey residents are either blind or have severe vision loss, and that the number is expected to increase as the population ages. The National Eye Institute projects a a three-fold increase in cases of blindness alone by 2050, she noted.

The global health care company, Novartis, received Vision Loss Alliance’s Founders Award for its longtime support of the nonprofit. Robin J. Pearl, chair of Vision Loss Alliance’s board of trustees, said over the past 10 years Novartis has donated more than $70,000 to fund Vision Loss Alliance programs.

Held during Blindness Awareness Month, Dining in the Dark was eye-opening for sighted guests, and it also gave Vision Loss Alliance participants a chance to shine, Program Director Elsa Zavoda said.

“This is an opportunity for our students to feel self-empowered and to help people understand what they experience on a daily basis,” Zavoda said. “People can’t understand what it’s like not to have sight unless they experience it.”

When Olivia Carolan’s dessert arrived, she didn’t need sight to know it was chocolate. “I could smell it!” the fifth grader said as she drove her fork into the gooey center and happily took a bite.

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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.