VIPS Indiana opens resource center for visually impaired preschoolers

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Welcome to the “city of toddlers”.

Inside its premier brick-and-mortar location just east of downtown, Preschool Services for the Visually Impaired has created the perfect place to play for young children learning to navigate the world.

In the center of the hall is a small ramp and bridge connecting to an orienteering and mobility track where children can work on their cane skills. In the corner, a tree with realistic bark and a reading corner where children can explore large print and Braille books. Nearby is a light table where they can practice turning switches on and off and begin to understand the contrast of light.

Official opening on April 28 and located at 1212 Southeast Avenue in Line Lofts, the Simon & Estelle Knoble VIPS Family Resource Center will be a space where families can learn together.

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As the parent of a visually impaired child, Regional Manager Meredith Howell knows how difficult it can sometimes be to raise a child with different abilities. Before she and her daughter, Lola, found VIPS, Howell said she remembers feeling lonely — struggling to find information, connect with other families and relatives, find their place in an otherwise unknown world.

She hopes the resource center will be a hub for families of visually impaired toddlers to learn and share tools to help them.

“While I once felt alone on this journey,” Howell said, “these families, these Hoosiers, are no longer alone.”

VIPS Indiana serves hundreds of families a year

VIPS provides early intervention for children aged 0-3 who are blind or partially sighted. Typically, providers travel the state, visit children and their families in their homes, and offer specialized instruction to improve their eyesight or sharpen their other senses.

In 2021, the agency served 363 children, an increase of 100 from the previous year. The goal is to continue to expand this reach.

Howell’s family was the 31st to be served by VIPS in Indiana. Her daughter, Lola, has cortical visual impairment – ​​a neurological condition that can improve with early intervention. Now 10, Lola can spot something as small as an M&M from several feet away.

“VIPS literally changed the trajectory of our daughter’s life,” she said.

Meredith Howell, Regional Director of the VIPS Simon & Estelle Knoble Family Resource Center, stands in the center's lending library Friday, April 1, 2022 in Indianapolis.

And the resource center will allow hundreds more children each year to experience this potentially life-changing intervention, Howell said. The facility also includes a teletherapy room and clinical space where select clients will be able to have virtual visits with providers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“Teachers and VIPS representatives connect patient families to Cincinnati Children’s specialized vision services, which include in-person and video visits,” said hospital spokesperson Barrett Brunsman. “Cincinnati Children’s will continue to find ways to ensure Indiana children receive the right care in the right place at the right time.”

Welcoming families “with open arms”

Throughout the building, you can find braille wallpaper, which features words that Howell says invoke the human spirit: independence, kindness, compassion, courage, empathy, equality.

A sensory garden facing Southeastern Avenue will allow new spaces for exploration. There’s also a lending library where families can borrow large-print and Braille books, which Howell says can be expensive and hard to find second-hand. Nearby, a kitchen area, where Howell said the coffee is always on, will allow parents to share a space to relax, connect or gather for special events.

“10 years ago, nine years ago, I really wanted to see something like this in Indiana,” Howell said, “and I couldn’t find anything like it.”

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And that’s not all. Near Toddler Town, a sensory room creates a magical experience for children to help them prepare for services or find calm.

There are sensory swings, bubble tubes, a ball pit. Tucked into the corner is a small space specifically for children with cortical visual impairment. Howell said research shows children with this diagnosis are particularly sensitive to shiny objects and varying textures, so the den — perhaps slightly larger than a large moving box — is filled with red light and its walls are lined with Mylar, beads and ribbons.

Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) Den at the VIPS Simon & Estelle Knoble Family Resource Center on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Indianapolis.

When Howell thinks about the potential of the new space — and all the families VIPS will be able to reach through it — she can’t help but be excited.

“I look forward to welcoming them with open arms,” ​​she said.

To learn more about VIPS, visit vips.org/vips-indiana.

You can reach IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.

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