My love affair with books began when my mother read to me, her voice taking me places I'd never have visited otherwise. Recently, I discovered a group of volunteers who also bring the written word to life by reading aloud.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Virginia Voice, the nonprofit that has become the "eyes" and "hands" for people with sight and/or physical problems, provides programming in central Virginia courtesy of WCVE-FM and free, specially manufactured radios. That signal reaches a 40-mile radius of Richmond, while a second, through Hampton Roads' WHRO-FM, covers a 40-mile radius of Norfolk. (Most of the programming is also available at virginiavoice.org .) About 140 publications — including this one — are read from cover to cover by volunteers for about 2,000 listeners, 85 percent of them blind or visually impaired, with the remaining 15 percent of the audience facing physical challenges.
Nick Morgan, executive director for 28 years, has seen many changes at the organization, which rents space at the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired on Azalea Avenue.
"We started with a handful of volunteers sitting around a rickety card table with a shag rug thrown on top. A small room served as our studio a couple of hours each week. With the exception of a few hours on weekends, we now have around-the-clock programming, utilizing three studio booths and state-of-the-art recording equipment."
Jewel Sanford, a former speech pathologist, is 84. Virginia Voice proved indispensable to her after she began to suffer from severe sight limitations due to macular degeneration.
"It was a terrible blow because I loved to read. Over the last 10 years, Virginia Voice has filled a great void in my life," she says, citing one example in particular. "A blind man, who worked with an assistant, had this cooking show called Cooking in the Dark . I've used recipes and ordered helpful instruments, like my talking thermometer, after listening to his show. How else would I have known about these things if I didn't have Virginia Voice? It's my constant companion."
The organization, which serves a clientele ranging in age from 9 to 105, operates on a $350,000 annual budget, funded by contributions from the public and private sectors, as well as individual donors. Four full-time and three part-time employees orchestrate programming for 365 days year.
Nancy Torrence, a former decorator, is 85. She, too, has macular degeneration and has listened to Virginia Voice for about six months.
"I've decided to make it ‘macular determination' and just do what I can. I start every day by listening to the Bible readings. When I can't sleep, I can hear poetry or a chapter of one of the books they read. It's teaching me now [that] I can't read. I look forward to it every single day."
Virginia Voice implemented three new programs to air during its anniversary year. First, community VIPs have been guest readers, to raise awareness. Second, an entertainment program called Sunday Special has been added. (A recent installment included the first act of the Barksdale Theatre's Butterflies Are Free .) Patty Campbell, Virginia Voice's outreach/marketing director, asked me to participate in the third program, Writer's Voice, running through next fall. I read one of my Reflections columns and an excerpt from my book Izzy's Fire .
"We're inviting several published authors to read their own work and talk about it," Campbell says. "We wanted our listeners to hear the work in the author's voice."
As someone who faces her own struggles due to significant hearing loss, Patty's words struck a chord with me. As I read, I wondered what it must be like to be on the listening side. Since then, I've decided to put my mouth where my heart is by volunteering at Virginia Voice to help take other human beings places they probably would never go alone.
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2010.