Giving a Chance to Read

By Gabrielle Costa

Ivan Molloy is blind. He has been since he was eleven, when another child threw a rock that hit him in the eye. He and his wife Lorraine have spent the past two decades collecting second-hand spectacles, braille writing frames and guides, electronic visual aids, used cassettes and other equipment to send to schools for blind children in countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The task, which they describe as "completely fulfilling," began after a holiday to Sri Lanka in the mid-'70s. Staying with friends in Ratmalana, a suburb outside the capital Colombo, they discovered an extraordinarily under-resourced school for blind and deaf children.

"We found out on returning home that there was a lot more we could be doing," says Ivan, who was troubled by the lack of facilities and the fact that malnutrition had caused many of the children's sight problems. So the couple established an independent organization that is now affiliated with Blind Citizens Australia. Theirs is a special interest branch dedicated to overseas services.

The overseas service branch coordinates fundraising and collection drives to help provide blind children from poor families with some of the materials vision-impaired people in Australia take for granted. Only the most resourceful person would think to convert photographic paper into braille paper. Once a braille teacher and former member of the Lions Club, Ivan, now 71, has managed to enlist the help of three Lions branches -- Mornington, Sandringham, and Mount Martha.

Members and other volunteers collect photographic paper from Kodak whenever there are enough offcuts to make the trip worthwhile. Photographic paper makes excellent braille paper. The paper is transported back to the Molloys' Mount Martha home, and neighbors, friends, and Lions' Club volunteers carry it out to the back shed. There it is cut into two sizes, both ideal for writing and reading. Ron Smith from Sandringham Lions does most of the slicing with a $6,000 guillotine bought with a grant from his club and some cash from the overseas service branch. Ivan found doing the job with a paper knife a little monotonous.

A working bee is then called and the paper -- last year there was almost a ton and a half -- is wrapped in plastic and labeled "articles for the blind." It is taken to the post office by another volunteer and sent off to 25 Third World countries at no charge. The makeshift braille paper is much in demand. Ratmalana's library, once an empty room, is now full of hundreds of books made out of photographic paper. Other schools have taught children to read and write with Kodak's scraps. (The company has never charged Ivan or his volunteers for it.)

Other efforts involve raising cash, generally a few thousand dollars a year. In parts of the Third World, a portion of that money can pay the salaries of workers for several months. Most of the money goes to Ratmalana and is used to buy food, such as powdered milk for the children, to try to counter the effects of malnutrition on their already impaired eyesight. The school must forward a receipt of their expenditure. Ivan believes it is important that "every cent" is spent on the children's needs. There is little government funding for many of the schools in Third World countries and the overseas service branch's efforts go only part of the way to make up the shortfall.

At Ratmalana, the children eat eggs twice a week. Ivan ordered the purchase of pullets a few years ago and the children are not only fed eggs regularly, but also taught how to tend poultry. Some get to take chickens home once their boarding period at the school ends. Their poultry-raising skills mean the children are welcomed back into the family home instead of being considered a burden, Lorraine says. And that is important because, although childless, she and Ivan feel as though the 240 children and Ratmalana are theirs. They have returned to Sri Lanka nine times and have known many of the pupils there from their infancy. "I don't want to see any of my children begging on the street," she says, echoing the words of the school's principal, Geehtal Mendis. Many blind children in Third World countries survive only by begging. Some children who have benefited from donations from the Molloys have gone on to university.

And how does Ivan manage to recruit all those dozens of helpers? Is he pushy, or is his enthusiasm for blind children contagious? "I don't know," he proffers with a smile. "I can't see the looks on their faces when I ask them."

  • (Reproduced from The Age, Melbourne, Australia, October 13, 1998; reprinted in Sunrise magazine, December 1998/January 1999.)

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