PROFILE: Helping Visually Impaired Children Adapt

The American Federation for the Blind estimates that in 2013, Colorado had 108,599 visually impaired or blind residents and 1,409 were under the age of five. Anchor Center for Blind Children in Denver is teaching these young, visually impaired children how to orient themselves in the world and helping their families learn how best to support them.

Anchor Center’s mission is to teach visually impaired infants, young children, and their families, providing hope and a nurturing environment where children reach their highest potential. Savannah Wippel, Director of Operations, notes, “Anchor Center has helped thousands of children and their families learn how to live with a vision impairment, meet critical early developmental goals, and lead full, productive lives. Our children graduate from the programs to attend the public school system and amaze us all with what they can accomplish.”

Started in 1982 by a librarian from the Colorado Library for the Blind and the local Delta Gamma Alumnae chapter, Anchor Center serves blind, deafblind, and visually impaired infants, toddlers, and preschool (birth to age 5) children. Each year, the center helps more than 400 children through programs that provide positive, appropriate early education for blind children and support for their caregivers and siblings. Wippel explains, “Research in early childhood education shows that the family has the greatest impact on child development. Anchor Center’s programs educate parents on what their child can do and gives the children the skills and confidence to become productive adults.”

Early Intervention programs include Infant and Toddler classes, a Preschool Program, home visits, and regional outreach trips to areas of the state where vision resources are scarce. Wippel describes the programs as “focused on helping children reach their full potential and achieve the greatest degree of independence. This is accomplished through the inclusion of numerous self-help and daily living components to enable visually impaired children to gain confidence in themselves and their abilities.”

Families attend the infant and toddler classes together and parents watch the staff to learn how to play with their children. Teachers of the visually impaired plus speech, occupational, physical, and music therapists help infants refine motor skills and toddlers with socialization and verbal development. The Preschool Program prepares the children to attend public school by working with them to learn orientation and mobility, Braille, table manners, toilet training, life skills such as dressing themselves, and compensatory skills like learning to listen for environmental sounds to orient themselves in a room.

Anchor Center’s programs are very effective. “Each child is assessed individually to determine progress on developmental goals,” Wippel says, “At least 80 percent of children make some measurable progress on developmental goals and 90 percent of children gain compensatory skills that make it possible for them to participate in everyday life experiences.  The majority of children are integrated into typical kindergarten classrooms in their local public schools.”

Additional successes for the center in 2014-2015 include:

  • Served 382 children and families through center-based services, home visits and rural outreach.
  • Teachers and therapists provided over 437 home visits to children too medically fragile to attend center-based services.
  • Completed 8 outreach trips to support families in rural areas.
  • Staff participated in 69 IFSP/IEP meetings, which are planning/goal setting meetings required by law for all children with disabilities.
  • Family Support/Education staff held 136 parent/family group meetings on a variety of topics, including specific visual diagnoses.
  • Provided 101 eye exams to children who receive our services and also to children referred to the program.
  • Our new respite program with the Denver School of Nursing served 123 children and gave their parents and caregivers a night off.

In October, Anchor Center partnered with local news stations for “Dancing with the Anchors,” a ballroom dance competition/fundraiser which paired newscasters with professional dancers. 9news Meteorologist, Dannielle Grant, took home the trophy.

In the days leading up to the competition, Ms. Grant also profiled one of Anchor Center’s students, Asher Engelbert. During his 20 week ultrasound, Asher was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, fluid buildup in the skull. When he was born, it was discovered that, among other complications, Asher’s brain did not develop correctly and as a result, his eyes never formed.

Without Anchor Center, Asher’s parents would have been adrift. They learned how interact with their son, how to support him, and to help him grow into a spirited little boy. Asher graduated the Preschool Program in June.

Anchor Center is funded through a combination of foundation grants, private funding, special events, corporations, and individuals. Wippel explains that funding is the main challenge that the center faces, “Many of the families that receive support have limited financial resources, which are further depleted by dealing with the complications of having a child who is blind and the related medical expenses. Services are provided to all children and families regardless of their ability to pay a nominal tuition. The number of scholarships requested by our families continues to increase.”

For more information about Anchor Center or to schedule a tour of the facility while the children are in program, call 303.377.9732.

Previously published as part of CIVHC’s Spotlight on Innovation series.