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Our History

Early Beginnings

In 1947, a small group of individuals who were blind and visually impaired began meeting in each other's homes to learn ways to help each other achieve economic independence. Training sessions were conducted in piano tuning, and mop and broom making. These were some of the few "job trades" available to individuals who were blind during that era. Often over coffee and dessert, individuals would discuss how they accomplished everyday tasks and would share techniques that had worked for them. These gatherings became the prototype of today's support groups.

Over time, the number of groups and meeting locations grew. Socialization and support groups became the focus of activity, while skills training was provided to individuals, at their request, by a State rehabilitation or "home" teacher. In 1952, the Coordinating Council of the Blind and the local Maricopa Club established a central meeting place for all the groups at 232 S. Central Avenue in Phoenix. In 1953, the organization incorporated and hired its first executive director.

Melvin Jones LIONS Center


In the early 1960s, when the Phoenix Blind Center building was to be demolished, local Lions clubs began planning for a permanent facility. By 1961, twenty-eight Lions clubs had formed a voluntary affiliation, named in honor of Melvin Jones (founder of Lions International and an Arizona native) to raise funds and identify a site for a permanent facility for the Phoenix Blind Center. Lion Keith Taylor and his wife Gladys donated 2.5 acres of land on the northwest corner of 32nd Street and Roosevelt in Phoenix, the current site of today's Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Under the dynamic leadership of Lions Wally Pensinger, Ames Thompson, Bill Lockhart and Mark Wilson, a growing building fund was generated and voluntary labor recruited from Lions clubs and labor unions. The original 9,100 square foot building at 3100 E. Roosevelt Street was dedicated by Lions International President, Aubrey Green and Secretary of the State of Arizona, Wesley Bolen on February 26, 1964.

Expansion of Services

Recognizing the importance of rehabilitation, Executive Director Frank Kells began working with the State to provide rehabilitation instructional services (adaptive skills training for daily living) for Center participants and also hired the Center's first Orientation and Mobility instructor in 1964. Additionally, the Center started a special aids service which provided adaptive aids and devices for individuals who were blind and visually impaired. Although social and recreational programs remained a major focus of the Center's activities, the client base doubled over the next five years with the advent of rehabilitation services.

After Frank Kells left the agency in 1969, Allen Woody, formerly a director of services for the blind in Illinois, was hired as executive director in 1971.

The 1970s were a hotbed of activity, with increased funding at the state and federal levels. During the 1970s Woody obtained federal Independent Living and Older Americans Act funding, which included transportation funding, thus allowing the Center to greatly increase both its rehabilitation and social recreation services delivery.

1990 - 2000

In 1989, the much-loved Allen Woody died. The following year his position was filled by our current executive director, Jim LaMay. LaMay had previously been the director of a low vision clinic in Minneapolis, and was an experienced rehabilitation teacher, and orientation and mobility instructor. His overriding goal for the Center was to develop it as a primary resource for the provision of broad-based, fully integrated, state-of-the-art rehabilitation programs and services for adults who were blind and visually impaired. Under LaMay's dynamic leadership, strong and abiding relationships were developed with United Way, the Arizona State Rehabilitation Services Administration and many private foundations throughout the Valley. These resources provided the basic funding necessary to build staff and support broad-based programs and services.

In 1995, with additional funding available from a bequest, the Center acquired space in another building on the Lions Foundation campus and established its Rehabilitation Skills Center. By 1996, the Skills Center, staffed by a cadre of highly skilled professionals, was providing an array of services that included: beginning and advanced itinerant and group rehabilitation skills training; orientation and mobility instruction; comprehensive counseling services; information and referral, social work and community education and outreach services.

Rapid advances in technology during the 1990s made it possible for "blind services" to take a quantum leap forward. The new field of assistive technology allowed specialized software and hardware to interface with standard computers and programs making it possible for individuals with vision loss to read, write, access information and communicate independently just by using a computer. This opened the doors wide for more meaningful employment, education and personal enrichment opportunities.

In 1996, ACBVI hired Robert A. Gates, a teacher and assistive technology specialist. Under Gates' direction at the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired's Assistive Technology Center was created. Today ACBVI's technology center provides state-of-the-art, cross-disability, assistive technology assessment and training to individuals and groups in the home, community, educational setting, worksite and in Center-based classes. The Assistive Technology Center also serves as a primary resource for information and referral for health and service providers, the academic community, Valley employers and the public at large.

Perhaps above all else, in the 1990s one person's positive response to personal tragedy literally changed the face of the Agency. In the mid-1990s Steve Welker was a thirty-something insurance executive on the fast track to success. Then one day, while driving along a surface road in Scottsdale — just two weeks before his twin sons were born — Steve's car was hit head-on by a vehicle being pursued in a high speed police chase. Steve suffered massive internal head injuries and stroke of the optic nerve, leaving him totally blind.

When Steve Welker found the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, he received the Center's full complement of rehabilitation skills training and — most importantly for Steve — he received assistive technology training which made it possible for him to resume his professional career. Today Steve Welker is still fast tracking success as president of his own insurance company.

In the interim, wanting to give back to the Agency, Steve assumed a leading role early on. First as a member of the Board of Directors, then as Vice-president and finally in the position of President, Steve helped identify core issues that needed transformational change.

Recognizing the lack of public awareness about blindness or the Agency's services, Steve became a tireless speaker for United Way leadership presentations, while appearing on numerous radio and television shows and generating newspaper articles. Working closely with Executive Director Jim LaMay and staff — while building the Board of Directors — Steve spearheaded a driving strategic planning process that targeted the need for long-term financial stability and, most pressing, the need for remodeling, consolidation and expansion of the Agency's main facilities.

The Present

Under the joint leadership of Steve Welker, newly elected Board President, Rich Mettille, Executive Director Jim LaMay, and with the help of many friends, in the spring of 2000 the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired embarked upon a major capital campaign which resulted in a completely redesigned, consolidated and expanded main facility that provides state-of-the-art rehabilitation instructional programs and social services to serve the ever-growing population in need both now and in the future. The new facility allowed the Center to bring its entire staff, previously housed in two buildings, under one roof , providing total connectivity of communications and computer functions and greater economies and efficiencies of administration functions and facilities management.

The Center’s new facilities include:

  • a fully equipped state-of-the-art assistive technology assessment room
  • training laboratory to provide computer training across the range of disabilities
  • a fully equipped adaptive kitchen
  • a “simulated home” rehabilitation training room allowing for new, streamlined group training which helps clients achieve the skills necessary for independence much more quickly than in the itinerant one-on-one training model
  • complete optometric exam room for clinical low vision services
  • low vision training room
  • assistive technology library
  • redesigned, state of the art ceramic studio
  • arts and crafts room
  • new classrooms
  • conference space
  • multi-purpose function facilities and much more
  • Major funding for the project was provided by:

  • North Phoenix Lions Club
  • Lions Clubs International
  • Lions Foundation of Arizona
  • Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust
  • Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust
  • The Thomas R. and Deborah A. Davidson Foundation
  • Ella Carroll Trust
Major in-kind gifts of furnishings, fixtures, technology hardware and software were provided by:
  • Motorola