*For access to the video on the work of the SLWBA go to http://youtu.be/D3vnGN-4_t0
Located to the north, north-east of the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines, to the north-west of Barbados and south of Martinique lies the island of St Lucia. With a landmass of 617 kilometers or 238 square miles and a population of just under two hundred thousand, St Lucia is also home to over 1,000 blind and about 5,000 visually impaired persons.
In an effort to assist those who are blind and visually impaired, the St Lucia Blind Welfare Association (SLBWA) was established in 1972 with help from the Caribbean Council for the Blind (CCB).
The SLBWA is a non-governmental organisation, mandated by the Parliament of St Lucia to coordinate the education, rehabilitation, eye health and general welfare of the blind and visually impaired.
Anthony Avril, the Executive Director of the Association, has been at the helm over the past several years. Mr. Avril, who is blind, lost his sight at an early age and ironically, it was the then St Lucia Committee for the Welfare of the Blind that came to his assistance.
"I first came into contact with what led to the Blind Welfare Association when I was 18 years old. I lost my sight between one and two years old and when I actually started my formal education that was when I really came into contact with the St Lucia Committee for the Welfare of the Blind - this later gave birth to the Blind Welfare Association”
I started as a student and got a break and went overseas and studied. When I returned in about 1981, I was given the responsibility of leading the Association as the Director.
We have gone through various phases of development, there have been all kinds of challenges and setbacks, but we have kept our eyes on the goal of creating a society that is inclusive of all citizens", he said.
Years later, the SLBWA is still going strong. As 2011 came to a close, the Executive Director reflected on the achievements and also looked ahead to 2012.
"One of the significant things for us in this past year (2011)is that we have in fact completed the second year of the special project, “Delivering Vision 2020 in the Caribbean” which is supported with EU funds, the programme being implemented by the CCB, Sightsavers, along with affiliates of the CCB, such as SLBWA. We have completed the second year in a manner which appears to be meeting expectations - that's a high point for us “.
Another source of pride for the Association is the integrated education programme.
"The programme continued in 2011. We have made arrangements for students to write their exams and our multi-programme for children with disabilities has continued. This is significant because the economic situation is cutting deep into the capacity to sustain these programmes”.
The SLBWA is also integrally involved in another aspect of Education, that of dealing with children who have multiple disabilities.
The Dennery Child Development Centre can be found on the east coast of the island. It is the joint activity between the SLBWA and the Child Health and Adolescence Programme of the Ministry of Health.
There are 25 children in the school, for convenience, they are divided into three groups: Early Intervention - this consists of children with Downs Syndrome; there is also a mixed group in which children have been diagnosed moderate retardation and autism; and the multiple disabled group in which the children are also visually impaired.
Eustacia Flavien is in charge at the Dennery Child Development Centre, where she develops and supervises programmes for the children with multiple disabilities.
While the Centre is operated by the SLBWA - she is employed by the Government in what she describes as an interesting arrangement.
"The SLBWA does the Education Programme. Before being assigned here, I was an Itinerant Teacher in the south; when this Centre opened they pulled me over."
There are challenges, but Ms Flavien says the importance of the Centre cannot be over-emphasised.
"Lots of my children have grown… it's so heartwarming, that's what I work for just to watch my children grow". I am blessed; I get do something that I like to do", she said.
The SLWBA is also well known for the work with individuals - one of the success stories is that of Christie – a little girl who lost her sight due to Retinoblastoma or cancer of the eyes.
"When we discovered Christie, it was through one of our many community outreach activities and we were told that there was this little girl who happens to be blind. We followed up and found her. She is the victim of retinoblastoma; they had to enucleate both of her eyes. She's a fantastic little girl, a bundle of joy. We started from there with her; we decided that we would integrate her and keep her in her community”, said Mr. Avril.
And there is the story of Juliette Mauricette. On June 12, 2009 tragedy struck and she lost her sight
“It’s one of those situations that should not have happened in the first place. Juliet was a victim of domestic violence and this led to her impairment, both visual and physical.
But she is a young woman with a dynamic spirit; she's a fighter; she's a survivor. When you meet her you can't help but feel it for her. We at the St Lucia Blind Welfare Association, have been trying to help her”
“She has challenges that will remain with her for life, and there's very little we can do about that. But we know she will succeed; we will continue to provide her with rehabilitative services and we will help her to take the reigns of her life. We will stay with her until she can get back on her feet”, the Executive Director noted.
A lot has been done over the past year in the SLWBA. Anthony Avril is encouraged by the work being carried out by the Caribbean Council for the Blind and members of his team with the St Lucia Blind Welfare Association. He also hopes that some of the hurdles associated with Vision 2020 in some countries will be dealt with during 2012.
“The problem with us is that blindness is not seen as a life threatening disease, but some of the conditions such as diabetes and so on contribute to blindness and vision impairment. We need to vigorously tackle those conditions and in doing that it helps to minimize the increase in visual impairments. The need for countries to take part is even greater now than it ever was. Every time you can help to rehabilitate the blind person or visually impaired person to the point where they can take care of themselves, you have invested into the future”.
For 2012, the SLWBA will continue to grow from strength to strength as an organisation with a vision.
”We are hoping to continue to expand; we would like to establish some more Vision Centres in St Lucia. We believe in taking the service to the people and will continue that thrust in 2012 ...., if we can do some of these things in 2012, we will be happy”, he said.