KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Cayce Plungis is a licensed nurse practitioner. She’s a visual learner who’s moving to the Kalamazoo area; and she’s getting ready to search for her next nursing job.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that would jump in my car and go, go, go; do things on my own, take trips, and just go,” said Cayce.
But what happens when the way you see the world for 37 years all of a sudden goes dark?
“The fear that there was to have suddenly blackness was terrifying,” said Cayce.
Last January, Cayce was having health issues. While dealing with an infection, she woke up one morning to a discovery that would change her life instantly and maybe forever: her sight was gone.
“It was terrifying: having people come into your room and not announce themselves, and just on so many levels, it was absolutely frightening,” said Cayce.
The Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP) training center was established in 1970 in Kalamazoo. In Michigan, it is the only residential learning center for people who are legally blind.
“The Bureau and the training center’s mission really is to assist Michigan’s blind community in achieving independent living, and to become employed,” said Edward Rodgers, BSBP director.
Census data shows about two-percent of Michigan’s population are blind. In 2014, the BSBP placed about 150 to 200 people in jobs.
“No matter what your disability is everybody wants to be independent,” said Amanda Schoonover, a new student at the center.
Instructors individualize each student’s time here throughout the center’s five programs.
First with vocational rehabilitation, students re-gain skills by learning accommodations.
That means learning new languages: learning to read Braille, and then how to use a computer again with different keyboard commands.
The center teaches adaptive computer skills with software called “JAWS,” a screen-reading and large-print program.
“There’s a multiplicity of keystrokes to learn for every application you may use, but once you use these, you can cruise around a pc very nicely,” said Greg Green, a former Amway IT business analyst.
Students learn life-skills again, like cooking. They use tools like marked buttons on microwaves, label spices with Braille, and adapt measuring spoons by bending them, in order to scoop instead of pour.
And down the hall, this may sound surprising at first, you’ll find students using power saws and tools to wood-work; to become comfortable with home maintenance.
“They follow the rules more closely because they’re not going to second-guess their vision,” said Lee Greenacre, BSBP industrial arts instructor.
Then in life-skills, students learn little life-hacks and other tricks to make things easier.
“You reconnect where you feel as though perhaps you’ve lost that ability to be productive; now you regain it, and you regain by doing it and learning how to do it,” said Mary Zemlick, BSBP occupational therapist and arts and crafts instructor.
Skill on top of skill, it’s all preparing students to re-enter the work force confidently, and to connect the peers with each other.
“We’re preparing competent individuals who can compete with their sighted peers,” said Lisa Kisiel, BSBP training center director.
For the last five months, Cayce has been living as a student at the center.
“I can actually hear when I’m walking in the hallway, when the hallway opens,” Cayce explained.
She's made lasting friendships. And now, she's got her freedom back.
“To now just be able to go wherever I want, to do whatever I want, and to know I can do it safely and I’m okay, and I don’t have to wait on people,” said Cayce. “I have that independence back and that’s so wonderful, and I would not have that in my life if it wasn’t for the center.”
And perhaps most inspirational of all is, in every keyboard command, food prep, class lecture, and in every single step, there is an unrelenting positive attitude.
“Losing my vision has I think improved my outlook on life,” said Cayce.
When FOX 17 asked Cayce if losing her vision changed her identity, she said something that should not be forgotten:
“I’ve been able to really focus on what is important, like finding my joy in life every day,” said Cayce. “I feel like I have so much left to live, and so much ahead of me in this world. Just because my vision isn’t there, I don’t think that should change anything.”
Rodgers said the BSBP’s annual budget is about $23 million; about 80-percent is federally funded by the Vocational Services Administration, and approximately 20-percent funded by the state.
For anyone who would like services, or to learn more about the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and its training center, call this number: 1-800-292-4200.
See the BSBP website.