VLANJ Goes Virtual to Serve People With Vision Loss During COVID-19 Crisis


MORRIS COUNTY — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey to halt programs at its locations, that left a hole in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired. VLANJ needed a temporary home for its Beyond Sight wellness classes, peer support groups, and an apps club, and found it through video conferencing.

“We wanted to give participants something to look forward to, and help everyone stay calm and connected,” said Linda Groszew, VLANJ’s senior program manager and volunteer coordinator. VLANJ is running Fit & Balance classes twice a week. Yoga, two support groups, and an Apps Club are offered weekly. Between nine and 14 people participate in each session using Zoom, Groszew said.

Bergen County resident Lori DeMarco has been taking advantage of the offerings. “Vision Loss Alliance is making the best of a bad situation,” said DeMarco, who’s attended VLANJ for 12 years. DeMarco, a retired teacher, lost her sight to diabetes when she was 26.

DeMarco said she especially appreciates the fitness classes. “I’m an active person, and I normally go to the gym three times a week, but I’m not motivated to work out at home alone,” she said.

Christina Brino teaches the Thursday Apps Club, assisted by VLANJ participant and technology instructor Susanne Sytsma. Each week, Brino and Sytsma introduce participants to new apps and encourage them to share with the group apps they’ve discovered.

“They seem to be getting a lot out of it,” said Brino, a former disabilities coordinator for the Morris County Department of Human Services who is blind since birth. The Apps Club is an extension of VLANJ’s iPhone and Ipad technology program, designed for people who’ve completed the mobile technology class.

With Zoom, people without computers can still participate by dialing in on either a smartphone or landline, Brino said. During instruction, participants’ devices are muted, but they are able to use a ‘raise your hand’ function to ask questions. Brino has taught them Zoom shortcuts, such as how to add events to their calendar, so they can simply click on a link to join.

Brino said she always leaves time at the end of class for participants to chat. “They miss each other, so it’s nice for everyone to hear each other and catch up,” she said. “It feels like we’re really there together.”

On a recent Tuesday, 14 people gathered on Zoom for an hour-long Meditation & Mindfulness session. Instructor Karen Noel led the group through breathing exercises, encouraging members to use the mind’s eye to focus on different parts of the body. The experience was deeply soothing. She addressed the COVID-19 crisis, saying, “We will get to the other side!”

The Tuesday meditation class at 1:30 p.m. EST is open to all with vision loss. There is no fee, but registration is required and the number of participants limited. Click here to register. Other fee-free classes are for VLANJ participants.

DeMarco said the fallout from COVID-19 “can be very depressing.” VLANJ’s virtual programs are helping her to stay positive. “It really connects us.”

For more information on VLANJ’s virtual programs, send an email to beyondsight@vlanj.org.

VLANJ is one of the state’s longest-serving nonprofits for adults with vision loss. Created in 1943, the nonprofit has evolved into the only comprehensive, nonresidential vision rehabilitation program for adults in New Jersey. It provides direct services in three counties to 225 adults, and another 1,000 participate in outreach programs.