Seventeen years ago, Sophia Myers' future didn't seem so bright. She had just lost her husband and was a senior citizen with no money in the bank. To make matters worse, she had recently gone blind.
But instead of slowly fading away, Myers, who was 70, founded the San Fernando Valley's first and only center for the visually disabled.
Today, the Sofia Myers Center in Van Nuys is the only social service facility serving the estimated 7,000 blind senior citizens who live in the Valley. And Myers, at 88, is still going strong--working five days a week, as well as leading the crusade for donations and getting involved in the lives of those who use the Van Nuys facility.
"I'm saving lives and bringing people back from despair to happiness," Myers said. "These are people who could easily become shut-ins and castoffs. They need me, and I need them. We are like one big family."
The center, on the grounds of an Episcopal church near the intersection of Sherman Way and Van Nuys Boulevard, attracts about 180 registered senior citizens who attend classes and workshops as often as three days a week.
A psychiatrist leads discussion groups and offers therapy, and instructors teach classes ranging from typing to learning how to navigate with a cane. Craft classes include ceramics, knitting and macrame.
"Once everyone gets busy doing things, they forget about all their aches and pains--all the problems they have in their life," Myers said. "They have a good time talking and relating to everyone else.
"We have no strict rules," she said. "If someone goes into a class, and they like it, fine. If they don't like it, they have the right to change. And if they are interested in something we don't offer, they can suggest something else."
Michael Colvard, director of the Los Angeles Institute for Ophthalmic Surgery and medical director for the Sophia Myers Center, describes the facility as "a place to go to have a cup of coffee and talk to others. It's a comfortable, safe environment where people can discuss problems and find solutions.
Not a Practical Option
"For the most part, these are people who are facing vision loss very late in life," he said. "These are not people for whom Braille is a viable alternative. Most of them are too old and too ill to try to learn it. Besides, for most, there are many other things that are far more important, like learning how to function independently or live alone."
Myers makes sure they do just that. As students register, Myers is frequently there to welcome them and find out about their background. "I get to know them real well. In time, many of them consider me their best friend. They tell me their family problems, their illnesses, their marital concerns, everything."
Gizella Laszloffy, a Van Nuys woman who has attended the center since 1980, said: "Sophia works very, very hard. She's not a young lady anymore, but she never lets up."
Added Sid King of Canoga Park, who became blind three years ago and started attending the center a year later: "Before I came here I was really down in the dumps. Sophia and the center have taught me how to cope with my blindness, how to reach out and make new friends. She has helped make my life much easier and she's helped me gain a lot of confidence."
A Week of Agony
For Myers, the transition from seeing to blind was just as difficult. ("I cried my heart out," she said.) For years, she had worked as a booking agent for concerts and lectures, often driving upward of 1,000 miles a week. But when she reached her late 60s, her eyes suddenly began to deteriorate. In a period of one week, she went from having good vision to virtually none as a result of hemorrhages in her retinas.
"I couldn't drive anymore, but I knew I couldn't sit around and do nothing," she said. She turned to the state Department of Rehabilitation, which sent a teacher to her house twice a week. "She taught me how to live as a blind person, how to walk with a cane, use the appliances in the kitchen, even how to clean as a blind person."
But after two years, the instructor told Myers that she had taught her everything she could.
"I asked her, 'What am I supposed to do now?' " Myers recalled. "She said, 'Why don't you open a school for the blind in the Valley? There are thousands of people who need these services but have no place to go. The Braille Institute is over the hill and it is very difficult for people to get there.' "
Myers approached the Van Nuys office of the Salvation Army and asked if there was space there to start a center for the visually impaired. The Salvation Army said yes. Myers printed a brochure and placed newspaper ads asking for volunteers. The response was immediate. "The first day we had people lined up offering to help. There were even people offering to drive students from their homes to the center."
After six months, the Salvation Army said it needed the space and asked Myers to move the center. She canvassed the Valley until she found a church in North Hollywood that agreed to let her use the facilities. That lasted two years, and then the center was forced to move again. She later wound up leasing space from a number of other churches and temples, before settling on the current location last January, St. Mark's Episcopal.
Such persistence and enthusiasm has paid off in other ways, too. Last year, Myers was able to raise $111,000 in donations. The city of Los Angeles contributed an additional $115,000 in matching funds and paid the lease for the grounds. Myers has always worked without compensation; only three employees at the center draw a salary. Virtually all the donated money is used for operating expenses.
And she has had great success in finding companies and people willing to donate equipment and supplies--vans, photocopy machines, typewriters, even pens and paper. "I have a great deal of ambition. When I want to do something I do it."
When a recent state inspection of the center's vans turned up a missing bolt, Myers had an employee drive her to a junkyard to find the part for a couple of dollars rather than spend $24 to purchase it from a repair shop.
"We don't charge anyone for using the center," Myers said. "Most of these people are living on $300 to $400 a month Social Security checks--and that includes their rent, utilities, food and clothing. It wouldn't be right to make them pay for this."
Myers plans to continue her effort as long as possible. Her present goal is to find a permanent location for the center.
"I know I have a lot of good years left," she said with a slight smile. "My family are all long-livers, and there's too much still to do here. When I started the center I was a young 70. I didn't feel my age then, and I don't feel it now. I love this place and I love these people. In a lot of ways they are closer than my own family."