Helen Keller Services Helps Children and Adults Prepare for the Future

Introduction

Building on its legacy, new President & CEO Joe Bruno guides pioneering, 123 year old agency into the future

News

First Home 1893-1899

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

May 5, 2016

Helen Keller Services helps children and adults prepare for the future

By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Helen Keller Services (HKS) has a proud history of providing services to help blind and deaf­blind individuals acquire the skillsets needed to lead productive lives. According to the agency’s new president and CEO, Joseph Bruno, Helen Keller Services takes a “boots­ on ­the­ ground” approach in offering support and guidance for those with disabilities.

Bruno succeeded Thomas J. Edwards, who recently retired after six years of service. The Brooklyn­ based organization serves people in four locations: Hempstead and Sands Point in Nassau County, Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County and the Brooklyn ­based headquarters on Willoughby Street.  It also maintains residences for 24­hour­a­day full service and support in Port Washington and Wantagh Long Island.

HKS offers services through two divisions: Helen Keller Services for the Blind (HKSB) and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf­-Blind Youths and Adults.  HKSB is a comprehensive rehabilitation program serving individuals living in the New York Metropolitan area from birth to senior status who are blind or visually impaired and who may have additional disabilities.  HKNC is the only comprehensive national program serving all 50 states that provides vocational and independent living skills training exclusively to youths and adults with combined vision and hearing loss.

Bruno is certainly the right man to oversee HKS.  For 10 years he was the commissioner of the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM), after former Mayor Mike Bloomberg asked him to join his administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Prior to that, Bruno served as a NYS Supreme Court Judge in Brooklyn and has all of the qualifications needed to lead this prestigious organization.

He is proud of what HKS has accomplished, and is anxiously looking ahead to what it can continue to achieve in the future. Bruno believes that fundraising is the key to help keeping HKS’ extraordinary services going. He believes that “the more focused and structured the organization, the more people will want to invest in it.”

HKS works with people as young as two months of age in its Early Intervention program and has a pre­school program for 3 to 5­year­olds.  In fact, HKS is one of the last organizations that offers a pre­school for the blind in NYC.  The pre­school is where children are assessed for entry in the NYC Department of Education programs. As children enter higher grades in grade and intermediate schools, HKS interacts with them to assess and determine what these children are capable of doing as they grow toward adulthood. If children can eventually enter the work force, HKS will work with them to make that happen.

Bruno says that the blind and deaf­blind community is an underserved group of people and that HKS is there to help them with real support to allow them freedom to grow and experience life to the fullest despite their apparent disabilities. He also admit that it’s “very emotional for me, as a parent to see these children struggling to live with tremendous disabilities. However, don’t say that to them; they are children and young adults who refuse to accept that their aspirations and enjoyment of life may be limited by their disabilities.”

Bruno has lived and worked his entire life in Brooklyn, and has enjoyed four decades of public service under five NYC mayors, including John Lindsay Abe Beame, Ed Koch, Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio.

HKS provides services for free to those who qualify (legally blind or legally blind with a hearing impairment). The organization raises money through fundraising events, legacies and bequests, planned and deferred gifts, memorial gifts and tax­ deductible donations.  HKS does not charge for its services and does not look at a client’s income.  It relies on endowments and tries to encourage people to help by directing them to its website.

HISTORY

Helen Keller Services was founded over a century ago.  On Nov. 2, 1883, 17­year­old Eben Porter Morford went to a local apothecary in the Hills section of Brooklyn where he was shot, resulting in total blindness. In 1886, Morford gathered a small group of blind men and women to try and help others like themselves.  On Oct. 1, 1893, the Industrial Home for Blind Men opened its doors in a rented house on 96 Lexington Ave.  Morford was acting superintendent and by 1894, 17 blind men lived in the home. Within two years, “The Industrial Home for the Blind of the City of Brooklyn” was incorporated. The goal was to teach a trade to the blind so that they could earn a living and become self ­supporting. William Berri, the first President of the Board of Trustees, originated the phrase “Helping the Blind to Help Themselves.”

The non­sectarian, non­ denominational and all­ embracing scope of activities was immediately established. Over the years, hundreds of people from varied religions and backgrounds were employed. During the 1950s, services were established in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In 1952, IHB established a Braille and Large Print Library to make sure that textbooks were available for children who were blind and placed in their local schools. In 1953, a summer day camp was opened to encourage participation in sports, music and drama. That same year, IHB established the first low vision clinic to provide diagnostic services, specialized low vision aids and glasses for individuals who had functional residual vision.

In 1967, the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) was established by a unanimous Act of Congress and IHB was chosen to operate the national program, which provided comprehensive rehabilitation training for people with severe hearing loss.  The name was changed because Helen Keller used to visit the factories and they wanted to honor her efforts. In 1983, IHB established a day treatment program for adults who were developmentally disabled and who were also blind or deaf­ blind. In 1985, the Board of Trustees decided to change the name of The Industrial Home for the Blind to Helen Keller Services for the Blind.

Today, HKS introduces the disabled to technology.  It has technology labs in Brooklyn, Hempstead and the most sophisticated lab at HKNC in Sands Point.  The federal government gave the organization the land at Sands Point, and next year HKNC celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Future goals include training and helping other states distribute technology, while teaching them how to make the best use of it. Bruno is heartened by the generous support from families who want to help the disabled live more comfortable lives.

EVENTS/FUNDRAISERS

HKS is non ­for ­profit governmental organization and relies on the public for support. The organization raises money with three major events held every year:

  • Helen’s Run/Walk, a 5K/3.1 miles event which was held on April 17, 2016 at the Sands Point Preserve in Long Island. 637 people participated!
  • The Annual Golf Classic, to be held this year at Wheatley Hills Golf Club in East Williston, NY on July 11, 2016.
  • The Annual Gala, to be held this year at the Garden City Hotel on Sept. 29 2016.

SERVICES OFFERED

HKS helps blind or visually impaired individuals by training them in areas of safe travel, daily living skills such as cooking and cleaning, communications, and personal care.  The organization offers a full spectrum of employment services for adults, including vocational assessment, job readiness, training work experience internships, and job placement.  They maintain the Individualized Residential Alternative, a group home for six clients who are blind and have additional disabilities.  They also provide Eye Service centers in Brooklyn, Hempstead, Ronkonkoma and Sands Point to help individuals maximize residual vision through the use of specialized lenses, magnifiers, and low ­glare lighting.  In addition, HKS provides programs for seniors and services for children, including braille and reading instruction.

A very special event is the annual Children’s Learning Center Graduation, on Friday, June 17, 2016 at HKS Headquarters at 57 Willoughby St. in Downtown Brooklyn.  According to Deborah A. Rodriguez, Director of Communications & Events, HKS invites elected officials to come celebrate the accomplishments of this “unique group of graduates.”  She further explains that this “first ­rate school does a great job preparing these kids, who need one-­on-­one training, for the future.”