Holiday Spirit

Max Murray attends a Vista Voyagers event where children who are visually impaired or blind were able to touch a whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on Jan. 20, 2019. Courtesy Tina Murray.

Posted December 17, 2021

What's out there for the blind or visually impaired youth? At Vista Center — a whole lot
The nonprofit's Vista Voyagers program teaches kids with visual impairments how to be independent

by Lloyd Lee / Palo Alto Weekly

In elementary school, when Max Murray played hide-and-seek, his friends quickly disappeared.

Not so much because they excelled at the game of self-concealment, but more due to a combination of Murray's visual impairments, including nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes that makes it difficult to steadily focus on things.

At a young age, Murray learned he couldn't participate in everyday playground games or team sports like basketball or baseball. Inevitably, he wondered: What sort of life lay ahead for him? Now 17 years old, ready to graduate from Los Gatos High School in the spring, Murray can confidently say there's a lot to look forward to — Palo Alto's Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired helped him see that.

For nearly three decades, Vista Center, a nonprofit that offers rehabilitative services to people with a range of sight issues, has operated an all-encompassing youth program for children from 5 years old to their high school graduation. In it, students are sent on field trips with special access or private tours, receive proper tools and educational resources to strengthen daily life skills, and get a chance to connect with other people who have some form of visual impairment.

The mission statement of the program, which was rebranded in 2015 to Vista Voyagers, is to help students learn how to become independent adults and, hopefully, be assured that the world can actually be quite accommodating for them — even without sight.

"I named it Vista Voyagers because this is an adventure they have to go on," said Bethany Small, senior director of programs at the nonprofit. "They have to be brave. They have to get out there and experience the world ... and they have to embrace who they are. That's a big piece with your visual impairment."

Each year, Vista Voyagers serves about a hundred children, Small said.

A critical part of Voyagers is to help administer the Expanded Core Curriculum, a federally mandated program with nine areas of learning aimed to prepare blind and visually impaired children to be independent. On top of the Common Core Curriculum that all K-12 students follow, students like Murray also receive instruction on subjects such as orientation and mobility, independent living skills and career education.

Murray has been involved with Vista Center since he was in late elementary school. Recently, he met with his vision teacher for a lesson on how to safely cook food in the microwave, during which Murray had to keep in mind to stay away from the microwave and to recognize the kinds of containers that can and can't go inside it. Before that, Murray had many lessons on knife safety, just one of many everyday skills often taken for granted.

Around Murray's age, students also receive career prep training, which goes beyond learning how to write a resume. Students sit down with a transition specialist to talk about what sort of goals they have and to learn about the career options available for the visually impaired or blind. They're also taught granular but critical career skills unique to their situation, including how to tell the interviewer that they're blind and what the disability rights laws are, Bethany said.

"There's all sorts of things that we, who have sight, don't really think about, but really need that kind of independence training and practice to get that job," she said.

It's not all work at Vista Voyagers, however. Students are all also taken on field trips in which they experience a museum or zoo in a way tailored to their needs. When Murray went to a marine laboratory, students were given a rare chance to touch the skeleton of a whale.

This past year, using a $15,000 grant awarded by the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund , the nonprofit maintained a healthy level of events and activities even as the Voyagers program shifted online. Virtual tours of the U.S.S. Hornet, a historical aircraft carrier, were hosted, and activity kits were sent to the students' homes. (Recently, Murray planted lavender seeds that were sent to him out in his backyard.)

One challenge that Murray's mom, Tina, says Vista Center approaches well is the need to provide activities for students with all levels of visual impairments. Murray not only has to work with his nystagmus but also has a rare genetic condition called oculocutaneous albinism. In addition to making his skin ultra sensitive to sunlight, the condition has also rendered his irises transparent, which means light floods the pupils even as the irises constrict.

At best, Murray can read a book that's six to nine inches away from him. But there are students at Vista Voyagers who are much more visually impaired or completely blind.

"Our kids range broadly on their vision," Small said. "But I can accommodate the same experience to encourage them all to learn and grow."

As a kid, Murray may not have been able to participate in every activity with his school peers. But over the years, with Vista Center's program, he's learned that he could adapt and still lead a fulfilling childhood. It may not have been basketball on the courts but instead martial arts in the dojo.

"I feel a lot better ever since I went to (Vista Center)," Murray said.

Right now, Murray's in the process of honing his creative skills. (During a tour of Netflix with Vista Voyagers, Murray learned that there's a whole world of creative fields that are open to people like him.) He's brainstorming an idea for an alternative reality video game and taking a digital photography class.

His creative aptitude is not so surprising to his mom. Tina remembers the first time her son picked up a digital camera and took thoughtful pictures of the seemingly mundane.

"Max has an incredible eye," she said.

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2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000

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Diane & David Feldman750
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Penelope Barrett100
Steve and Noel Beitler150
Diane and Brandy Sikic450
Susan Levenberg180
Elizabeth Weingarten50
Joan Regalado100
Susan Kaye200
Barbara Kinsey400
Susan Thomas500
David Hoexter100
Susan Elgee500
Romola Georgia*
Katherine Jarvis250
Catherine Ballantyne*
Bonnie Berg500
Nancy Moss250
Mr. and Mrs. John J. McLaughlin100
Dr. Teresa L. Roberts1,000
Sally Hewlett Fund1,000
Peter B. Giles250
Kay Sabin*
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Gwen Barry*
Susan Yee*
Jean MacDonel200
The UMOC Charitable Fund250,000
Gavin & Tricia Christensen*
Jeremy Platt & Sandra Murphy300
Loni Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Werner Graf2,000
Kim Harvey2,000
Feinstein Family1,000
Phil Fernandez & Daniel Sternbergh*
Virginia & Jim Fruchterman250
Karen Backer500
Christina Holt250
Peak-Filseth Charitable Fund500
Curt & Margaret Weil1,000
Wachtel Family1,000
Mary Lemmon25,000
Eric Keller & Janice Bohman500
Fran Codispoti250
Deborah Williams & Jean Luc Laminette1,000
Brennan Family500
Herbert Fischgrund100
Claire & Ed Lauing250
John & Martha McLaughlin200
Rob Colley & Kate Godfrey*
Glenda & Gordon Hughes*
In Memory Of

Kaye Kelley and Richard Van Dusen500
Don Kenyon50
Lew Silvers*
Larry Breed*
Er-Ying and YC Yen250
Jim and Dottie Mellberg250
E. Yanosh Alt20
Millie Rose Coldenhoff100
Edward & Elizabeth Buurma*
Leonard Ely500
Boyd Paulson Jr.*
Phillip Zschokke100
Mary Floyd*
Carol Berkowitz*
Pam Grady250
Lily & Phillip Gottheiner*
Kathy Morris*
August King*
Duncan Matteson1,000
David Mitchell*
Mason & Ryan*
Ian Halliday*
Ted Linden300
Florence K. Ho2,500
Mae & Al Kenrick500
Ray Bacchetti300
Marilyn D. Hansen200
Catherine Chow*
Emmett Lorey*
Betty Meltzer30
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Nancy & Robert Lobdell*
Bob Kirkwood*
Gary Fazzino200
Don & Marie Snow*
Dr. Richard Greene200
Robert O. Jack500
Ruth C. Satterthwaite*
Jack Sutorius500
The Tinney Family250
Hannah & Helen Peterson50
Beverly Aarts*
Thomas W. & Louise L. Phinney*
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach*
Tom Nolan Esq.100
Bob Merkevitch*
Bob Donald300
In Honor Of

Ada's Cafe*
Mandy Lowell*
Billee Werby100
Jill & Brian Bicknell*
Marilyn Sutorius500
Emma & Rich Pompetti500
As a Gift for

Dr. Ned Lund100
Street Cleaners100
Logan Marsh & Gabby Perez2,500
Businesses & Organizations

Packard Foundation25,000
Hewlett Foundation25,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Perry Foundation 10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run36,900
Sponsors of Moonlight Run:
  Stanford Health Care10,000
  Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation5,000
  Sutter Health/
Palo Alto Medical Foundation5,000
  Wealth Architects5,000
  Facebook5,000
  Deleon Realty5,000
  Kaiser Permanete5,000
  Stanford Federal Credit Union5,000
  Lakin Spears2,000
  Bank of the West1,500
Bleibler Properties LLC500
deLemos Properties LLC200
Johnson & Johnson Foundation1,000

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