2019 is expected to be a monumental year for the Braille Institute of America.
The nonprofit, which provides free programs and services for the blind and vision-impaired, will mark its 100th anniversary with the grand opening of its completely made over Anaheim Center at 527 North Dale Ave. as well as an appearance in the Tournament of Roses Parade. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit was founded in 1919 and began directly serving Orange County residents in 1934.
At the Rose Parade, three institute students will ride on the Lions Club International float. Among them is Anaheim resident Evelyn Maldonado, 15, who started taking classes with the nonprofit almost a decade ago. Also participating are Grace Dabbieri, 11, of Coronado and Jorge Gonzalez, 16, of Montebello.
Leaders in the Braille Institute’s youth and music programs chose the trio in accordance with this year’s Rose Parade theme: “The Melody of Life.”
“I’m really proud because this involves two things I love, which is the Braille Institute and music,” Evelyn said. “They really helped me come out of my shell.”
The teenager was only 18 months old when she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that claimed her vision. During her treatments, her mother, Maggie Maldonado, would bring in musical toys and sing to her.
Evelyn said she discovered her love of singing around age 3, when her mother gave her a CD of Disney princess songs.
By age 7, Evelyn began going to the Braille Institute for its cooking programs, but a teacher encouraged her to start singing. That led her to the institute’s Johnny Mercer Youth Choir and playing Ariel in a 2016 production of “The Little Mermaid.”
“[Ariel] was my favorite, mainly because of her voice,” Evelyn said. “This was a great moment for me because it was my first time performing in front of people.”
Evelyn’s vision loss did not stop her from making the honor roll and being named student of the month at Anaheim High School.
“It feels good to know that I’m still smart, no matter what,” Evelyn said.
She uses an electric keyboard to type her school work and, when possible, Braille books.
Evelyn’s mother and older sister plan to attend the parade to watch Evelyn ride on the Lions Club float.
“I’m so proud of her because she’s become so brave,” Maggie Maldonado said. “I’m so grateful for the Braille Institute for offering these free programs to the kids. We’re always seeing new parents there, and I always encourage them to come because their kids will learn a lot.”
The new Braille Institute facility will replace an aging complex of repurposed homes with a 14,735-square-foot, high-tech building aimed at educating students with vision loss, according to a news release. During construction, services were temporarily provided across Dale Avenue in the Anaheim Christian Reform Church.
“We’ve been in O.C. for over 50 years now,” said Peter Mindnich, president of the Braille Institute of America. “We’ve acquired land and different houses and put together regional operations there, but we really want a new, single center that’s state-of-the-art.”
While the institute also has centers in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, Mindnich said the Anaheim location is home to some of its best work.
“There we serve around 7,500 adults and children,” Mindnich said. “This includes people from south L.A. County and Riverside.”
Mindnich said the new complex will give students and clients one place for library services, evaluations for newcomers to gauge their abilities and instruction for students of all ages on how to use accessible mobile technology that can help with school and work.
“We’re preparing for our next century of service,” Mindnich said. “When we talk about our students, we don’t see boundaries; rather, we imagine possibilities.”
Alex Chan is a contributor to Times Community News.