WATERTOWN — In 1918, a local businessman had an interest in assisting local blind residents after being influenced by a speaker from the New York Commission for the Blind.

M.E. Avery wanted to break the stigma surrounding the blind, who were typically panhandlers due to lack of employment opportunities, and help them gain purpose. With the help of his friend, Francis Lynch, Mr. Avery opened a sheltered workshop — an organization that employs people with disabilities separately from others — in the old Mohican Building, 206 State St.

Those who attended would earn an income, though a smaller amount than a sighted person, by repairing and caning chairs or by weaving rugs and linen.

The workshop transformed one year later into the Watertown Association for the Blind, creating the first volunteer program for the visually impaired.

The agency remained at its State Street location until 1947, when Florence E. Hall, who was partially blind, donated her home, 321 Prospect St., to the organization upon her death. The association remained in Ms. Hall’s former home until 2017, when it moved to 131 Washington St.

Now, the small agency has grown into the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired of Northern New York, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary on Saturday.

Olivia M. Kassoum-Amadou, executive director of the association, said even after all these years, the agency still faces the stigma it did when it started. The stigma can prevent clients from furthering their education or obtaining employment, as well as discourage them from joining social situations.

“The biggest obstacle is educating the public on this organization and its role in the community,” Mrs. Kassoum-Amadou said.

However, Mrs. Kassoum-Amadou said the agency has still made great progress over the years in continuing to create opportunities for its 320 clients, such as opening a Vision Rehabilitation Center in January.

The center, at 146L Arsenal St., provides education and employment opportunities for residents of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties with training on assistive technologies.

“We’ve really brought the agency up to current standards of what it should be doing,” Mrs. Kassoum-Amadou said. “We’ve come a long way.”

Social interactions also help the clients further their independence, Mrs. Kassoum-Amadou said, which is why she brought back the support groups offered in previous years. The groups will participate in recreational activities such as bowling or a movie, as well as partaking in health and wellness courses.

“I’ve just been here one year, but I am proud of the accomplishments that have been made before me because they set the foundation for the agency and it survived,” Mrs. Kassoum-Amadou said. “Not many businesses can say they have survived 100 years and are still going strong.”

Saturday’s silver tea event will re-create the agency’s first fundraiser in 1948, which marked the formal opening of its former Prospect Street location. The event is donation-based and will be held from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 403 Washington St.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Health, nonprofit and education reporter for the Watertown Daily Times.

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