The life-changing impact of Visually Impaired Preschool Services
By Mariah Kline
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Sight is a gift that most of us take for granted. For parents of blind and visually impaired children, sight is a constant concern.
“As a mom, to realize when your child is six months old that maybe he’s never seen me or heard me is a devastating thought,” – Taylor Gehring.
Gehring is the mom of two-year-old Wells, who was born with CVI (cortical visual impairment), a neural processing disorder that makes it difficult for him to see. He began working with the First Steps program at Visually Impaired Preschool Services (VIPS) at the age of eight months, and his family has seen significant improvements every step of the way.
“When he started, he couldn’t see if you had lit a sparkler in the room,” Gehring says. “He couldn’t eye track or follow anything. They started so small with anything that could grab his attention and then we just built on those strategies very slowly.”
VIPS has worked with parents and children in Kentucky and Indiana for 35 years. The instructors of VIPS work to create individualized plans to help set children up for success as they develop and learn. They teach little ones how to utilize the remaining sight they have and navigate the world using other senses.
“They’re compassionate and they’re collaborative,” Gehring says. “They don’t just say, ‘This is what I think, and this is what you should do.’ They individualize everything. They hone in on responses and reactions that may seem so subtle, but they utilize those reactions to help them improve.”
Beyond helping the children, VIPS works to connect the families they serve – creating a safe space for parents to express fears and concerns and learn from one another. Through retreats and the Parent Empowerment Program (PEP), VIPS creates a community for parents to share their child’s struggles and triumphs with those who understand the most.
With experienced professionals leading the way, Gehring knows that her son is in the best possible hands.
“They’re very responsive,” Gehring says of the organization. “The therapeutic strategies VIPS does on a consistent basis so early on – even before they’re able to talk and have any kind of response – is tremendous. They’re not a ‘wait and see’ organization. They are always there. Even with the Coronavirus, they want to check-in and stay in touch.”
“We do not place children on a waiting list,” says Director of Education Kathy Mullen. “We understand the importance of beginning early intervention services as soon as possible.”
With several years of educational experience, Mullen knows what is at stake for blind and visually impaired children.
“When we look at the big picture, we know that visually impaired and blind adults are the most unemployed and underemployed group of adults with needs,” she says. “This is not acceptable and needs to be addressed as early as possible. VIPS begins addressing this issue in early intervention by teaching skills for independence, career education and self-advocacy.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, VIPS staff members have begun video conferencing with children to continue teaching and assisting them. While Mullen and her team are struggling during this difficult time, she sees the potential in remote services for families.
“I have had the blessing of serving in the field of early intervention for close to 30 years,” she says. “This is by far the scariest time and also one of the times with the greatest opportunity for growth. By providing services remotely, we will never replace face-to-face visits in a family’s home, but we will definitely be able to expand and enhance those services.
“Like all nonprofits, the VIPS bottom line is hurting during this time,” Mullen says. “Our amazing administrative team has identified and applied for all supports available statewide and federally. Any financial support would be greatly appreciated and will be put directly into our services for Kentucky and Indiana families.” V
Visually Impaired Preschool Services will host the Virtual VIPS Gala beginning with a silent auction on May 25 and a live auction on May 30. Items up for bid include vacations, bottles of bourbon and other select items. To learn more, visit vips.org or call 502.636.3207.