Though he is not a large man overall, President and CEO Joe Bruno filled Helen Keller Services’s new multipurpose conference room with the pride of well-earned accomplishment.
After passing a tortuous course of applications, inspections and requests for funding, HKS’s new center on 180 Livingston was finally ready to embrace a new generation of vision-impaired students from all five boroughs.
“This room can be divided into smaller conference rooms,” Bruno explained at the center’s official debut on Tues., Jan. 15, pointing to the panels folded into the ceiling just above everyone’s head. “We can turn one large room into half a dozen smaller ones to fit our needs.”
“A lot of thought went into the center’s design,” said HKS Principal Garth White. “For example, our gymnasium is set right next to the therapy rooms. We have our own dedicated elevators that bring students in right from the streets after they arrive from each of the five boroughs. Even the lighting is carefully designed to help stimulate residual vision in people— 90 percent of legally blind persons have some vision.”
The organization’s prior location on Willoughby Street, Bruno told the assembly, had aged out of usefulness. “Fifty years ago it was great. Thirty years ago, it was not bad,” he said. “But we needed something new. It’s our intention to remain a leader in the field of educating the visually-impaired. This headquarters is a reflection of our commitment to remain a leader in this field.”
Despite the need, it was a torturous process getting the center up and running. “There are 51 councilmembers,” said lobbyist Arthur Goldstein. “No one’s going to say ‘no’ to funding education for the blind, but each member has their own priorities. Getting them to come together to fund one center in one particular district isn’t easy. But we managed.”
“I’ve been here more than 50 years,” said HKS graduate and teacher, Rosemary Romano. “When I first started with HKS, we were in a basement in Jamaica, Queens. The sewage backed up there every time it rained. So you can imagine what this new facility means.” Romano recalled meeting her husband at HKS and starting a family while employed as an HKS teacher.
Before the ribbon cutting, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Membership Coordinator Lorraine Lowe presented the center with a traditional Chamber of Commerce map of the Brooklyn: “We don’t have very many members in the chamber older than we are,” Lowe said. “But we’re only 101, while Helen Keller Services is 125 years old.”
“It’s tough being an elected official,” said HKS supporter, Councilmember Laurie Cumbo. “There are so many problems, complaints, protests … there is so much bad news. But then you walk through the doors of a place like this, and it’s all worth it when you see these wonderful, smiling faces and know they’re going to have a state-of-the-art facility to help create a better world.”
“This is very special for me,” said Councilmember Robert Cornegy., “As the father of six, one of whom was diagnosed early with speech and learning disabilities, early intervention in programs like this helped him to become the charming, engaged, handsome and most importantly, employed, young man he is today. The need to continue to support programs like HKS is obvious.”
Helen Keller Services (HKS), the parent organization of Helen Keller Services for the Blind (HKSB) and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC), got its start in Brooklyn in 1893 as the Industrial Home for the Blind.
In 1985, the Board of Trustees officially changed its corporate name from the Industrial Home for the Blind to Helen Keller Services for the Blind. Thereafter, in 2014, the organization’s name was officially changed to Helen Keller Services to honor Helen Keller and her efforts on behalf of the blind and deaf-blind.