Ceil Fenwick, 80, admits it is not very early in the morning, but once a week the great-grandmother starts her day early so children around the world can benefit from her volunteer efforts with the ‘Oakmont Visual Aids Workshop.
She is part of a charitable group that has produced over 100,000 handcrafted educational books and learning materials for blind and visually impaired children since 1971.
Their efforts have reached all 50 states and destinations as far as Asia, Africa and Australia.
A father in Pakistan was so moved by the handcrafted books he received that he sent a heartfelt thank you note to the Santa Rosa volunteers who made them.
“He thanked us not only for his son’s wonderful books, but also for the rubber bands and plastic bags they came in,” said Fenwick, a housewife and mother of five daughters. “Can you imagine? The things we throw away that we don’t even think about.
Books, as well as learning aids such as flashcards, geometric puzzles and manual clocks, are provided free of charge. Anyone working with children with visual limitations or mental disabilities is eligible to receive the books, from public and private educators to parents and Sunday school teachers.
Volunteers in the Oakmont “Active Adult” community in the North Sonoma Valley dedicate their time to help make a difference for the children and adults who help them. Tactile materials are both Braille printed using specialized electronic Braille and handwritten in meticulous grade school printing.
The weekly workshops bring together 45 to 50 volunteers – mostly women – who perform their tasks with the efficiency of a Fortune 500 company: well organized, well managed and with meticulous attention to detail.
Much of the credit goes to the association’s board of directors and three volunteer managers, Carol Huseby, Pat Marcelli and Barbara Milan.
Milan, 73, oversees the group, devoting at least an hour almost a day to his volunteer position. A housewife who has raised three children while running an advertising business with her husband, Milan is ready to take on any challenges that come their way.
When the group received the biggest order in its history, it took action.
“The Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts ordered 900 books that we were able to produce for them, but it took us a year,” she said.
The year-round effort is based at one of Oakmont’s recreation centers, where volunteers meet for two hours on Monday mornings. Others provide additional work from home. Some couples work together, like Charlene and Walt Brown, who sew items and cut shapes and blankets from matte cardboard, respectively. Milan’s husband Joe Milan helps with a variety of tasks including brewing coffee every Monday to accompany the treats provided to the volunteers.
His wife coordinates the production of 38 different aids, from five to 11 page prep books with tactile illustrations to games like noughts and crosses. Each is used to develop and reinforce language and math skills and other learning concepts, such as simple and complex comparisons.
Most of the orders are for books, with titles like “Same or Different? And “Bigger to Smaller”.
Volunteers sit at specific task tables to trace and cut out shapes like hearts, stars, and animals from felt and glue them onto book pages asking, “Which number is fourth?” Or “Which is more narrow?” Others cut matte panels, cardboard and labels; Fenwick uses an electronic hole punch to prepare the book covers for assembly.
One group, playfully named The Cover Girls, decorate book covers by applying wallpaper with sponge brushes and Elmer glue, then carefully wrapping them in protective waxed paper while they are stacked to dry.
“It’s pretty fun and our table is pretty social,” said Ginny Dias, 69, an artist who paints in acrylics and watercolors. “We’re talking about restaurants and travel and art and dogs and all kinds of things.”
The friendship that develops between the volunteers is a plus to the collective mission of creating visual aids.
“The camaraderie is great,” said Pam Gilbert, 73, a retired kindergarten teacher. “You feel like you are doing something, contributing. “
She was working in unison recently with her fellow retired teachers Rose West, 73, and Mollie Atkinson, 79, and retired real estate agent Flo Boxerman, 91. Women cut and glued shapes from felt, some glued.
“Do you remember coming back to kindergarten?” Boxerman joked about their assignments. She has long mastered the tasks for over 20 years as a workshop volunteer.
The women say that the members support, appreciate and forgive any mistakes that might be made.