She started losing her vision at 19. Now as Vision Forward’s CEO, she’s helping others who share her experience

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Brittany Truong; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When she was 19, Jacci Borchardt began struggling to read small print, drive or recognize faces in crowded rooms.

As her vision progressively faded, she was diagnosed with a rare, genetic eye condition called Stargardt disease that caused fatty yellow pigment to build on the macula — the central part of the retina.

For years, she struggled to accept her condition.

Now, as the newly appointed CEO of Vision Forward Association, a nonprofit organization that provides services for the visually impaired, Borchardt connects with Wisconsinites who share her experiences.

The goal is to educate, empower, and enhance the lives of people of all ages impacted by vision loss. Most clients are not completely blind. Rather, they have low vision, and glasses and contacts cannot correct their eyesight.

In the past year, Vision Forward, 912 N. Hawley Road, helped more than 4,000 individuals. It is the only rehabilitation center in Wisconsin that provides comprehensive services, including a staff optometrist and youth programs.

The Journal Sentinel sat down with Borchardt to learn about Vision Forward’s mission and history, the cost of services and Borchardt’s personal journey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell more more about the programs offered at Vision Forward?

We work with children as young as a couple of weeks old who might have been diagnosed with a vision condition after birth. For infants and toddlers, services are provided out in the community in people’s homes. And not just in Milwaukee County — we have contracts in about 25 counties.

Our preschool program held here is for children ages 3 to 6. The goal is to help prepare them before transitioning into school. Physicians and physical and occupational therapists teach them to read Braille, use a white cane and explore the world with their other senses.

Last month, we had activities at the Albert and Ann Deshur Jewish Community Center Rainbow Day Camp. Kids got to do traditional summer camp experiences like make pottery, play beep kickball and learn archery. To be surrounded by peers who understand what it’s like to have a visual impairment is really empowering for the kids.

Adults and seniors who come to Vision Forward learn how to use assistive technologies, such as computers and tablets that have been adapted for them; practice daily tasks like cooking, cleaning and managing medications; navigate public transportation; and connect with peers in support groups.  

Vision Forward has been around for over 100 years. Can you tell me more about its history?

Up until about 2000, this used to be a boarding home where people who are blind and visually impaired resided. My office that we’re in right now would have housed two individuals. A little bell would go off and that signified breakfast, lunch or dinner, and everyone would go downstairs.

The focus of the organization really changed (from being an institutional setting) to being a rehabilitation center and giving people the training and skills that they needed to be independent. People moved from that dependency of, “Yes, we need someone to prepare meals for us,” and “How could we possibly live on our own — we’re blind!” to really being like, “Absolutely, that can be accomplished.”

There’s no reason why people can’t live within the broader community, and for most people, that’s where they want to be.

How do Vision Forward clients pay for services?

The early intervention program is a federal program that’s operated at the state level, so families, by and large, don’t pay. There is sometimes a small cost, based on their income level. For the preschool program, we have a very reasonable tuition, but also there are programs that can help. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy services can be billed to insurance.

But all those things don’t necessarily cover the full cost of actually providing the service. We have to do a lot of fundraising. Foundations and individual contributions make up a lot of how we do everything. Our mantra is that we don’t ever turn people away because of inability to pay. We will find other ways to get them what they need.

How did you find Vision Forward?

After graduating with my master’s from UW-Madison, I moved to the Milwaukee area and started seeing an ophthalmologist, Dr. Kimberly Stepien. She was the first eye doctor who pointed me to the fact that there are resources out there. Up to that point, doctors had said, “This is the prognosis. You’re going to continue to have decline in your vision and will reach a point of legal blindness.” It was a hard experience for me. Emotionally, I was not at a point where I had accepted my visual impairment. Dr. Stepien referred me to Vision Forward again and again.

When I was finally ready to take the next step, I reached out to Vision Forward and really had an amazing experience. I got to talk with a staff member who also had the same vision condition. That was pretty powerful for me. I went through the Low Vision Program and worked with a doctor and one of the occupational therapists and and got some some really helpful recommendations.

When did you start working for Vision Forward?

I started in 2013. A job opening came up to oversee all of the adult programming. It was aligned with the work I was already doing as a speech pathologist and clinical director, but now I could add on this additional component of helping people who I have a personal connection to. I started to loosen that grip a little bit on feeling so self-conscious and resistant to talking about my visual impairment, admitting when I needed help with things and using some of the accommodations.

What’s your favorite part of the job as CEO?

Every day when I walk through the doors, I feel like I’m truly making a difference. I feel really inspired by the role that I play, but I also feel inspired by our staff and their commitment to the work.

Alternatively, what are some of the challenges?

Finding dollars to do our work is an everyday challenge. It’s unfortunate that as a society, it doesn’t seem like we place enough value in investing in people of all ages who have disabilities. We’re having to raise $1.8 million a year just to do what we’re doing.

If we invest in a young child and teach those critical early skills that they need to be successful in school, there are long-term payoffs. On the flip side, for seniors, we could make sure they got the training and devices they need to continue to prepare their own meals and manage their medications. Assisted living is more costly for us to fund than if we could simply give them access to the training and tools.

The other challenge is we serve people from all cross the state, but the vast majority are in southeastern Wisconsin. It’s unfortunate that someone who lives in the northern part of the state, like Rhinelander, does not have access to the same quality of services that they could get if they lived in Wauwatosa.

Getting more people across our community access is an imperative for me.

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