SIERRA MADRE — Joann Seaman, 41, received her fine arts degree in 1972. A few months ago, she mastered the task of folding a sheet at the Center for Living Independence for the Multi-handicapped Blind (CLIMB).
"I did well in school, but I couldn't do anything or go anywhere on my own," said Seaman, who is blind, with slight brain damage that has not impaired her academic aptitude but has left her unable to perform household tasks such as making a bed. "If I hadn't come here (to CLIMB), I would have still needed someone to take care of me all the time."
Nestled among quaint small-town shops on Sierra Madre Boulevard, CLIMB is believed to be the only facility in the San Gabriel Valley where basic living, communication and vocational skills are taught to adult blind people with developmental disabilities. Only one other program in the county, Therapeutic Living Centers for the Blind in Reseda, offers similar residential care, said Judy Poindexter, director of the San Gabriel/Pomona Regional Center, which coordinates services for the developmentally disabled.
Together, the two programs serve about 140 adults in Los Angeles County, which, according to state figures, has 1,378 adults who are both blind and developmentally disabled.
"These are just the people who are registered with us; heaven knows how many others are out there that we don't know about," said Roberta Marlowe of the state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the 21 regional centers that coordinate services for the developmentally disabled.
Many of CLIMB's students, like Seaman, were premature babies born in the late 1940s and early '50s who were placed in incubators and given too much oxygen. They later developed retrolental fibroplasia, which causes blindness and brain damage. The program's 94 residents vary in degree of handicap.
Poindexter said there are schools for the blind and programs for the developmentally disabled, but little residential care for those with both problems. In addition, most programs are geared to those under the age of 21.
CLIMB, which opened in July, 1977, with 18 students, is filled to capacity and has a waiting list of 80. The program, in addition to the Sierra Madre complex, operates a home in Alhambra for blind adults with more severe emotional and mental disabilities. It also operates a halfway house in Sierra Madre for those who are almost ready to live on their own. And, for those one step away from complete independence, it runs an apartment building.
The founder and executive director of CLIMB, Bill Young, said the private facility has an annual budget of about $1.4 million. He said most students pay their way with state disability payments and supplements. Costs range from $250 a month for those who live in private apartments to $2,000 a month for students in the Alhambra home.
Young's idea for the facility came when he was working at the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles. He noticed that foundation students sent home after the age of 21 "would regress. They would just sit around and do nothing."
"This is a big problem," said David Ekin, program director at the Foundation for the Junior Blind. "When our students become adults, there is no place for them to go. Many go back home, and the parents don't know what to do. Some try to find a day program, and some end up in programs that are not designed for their particular needs."
CLIMB is designed to continue education for adults between the ages of 18 and 65, emphasizing basic living skills, such as making meals, riding a bus, balancing a budget and preparing for a job interview.
"Nobody has ever showed them how to be independent," said Wendy Matsutani, residential director at the school. "Many of these students will always need supervision, but at least they'll be able to dress themselves and make their own beds."
In keeping with its theory of promoting independence, the school operates a gift shop that sells items handcrafted by students. On display are wind chimes, tie-dyed scarfs, greeting cards and Christmas tree ornaments. The students also put on musical shows for the local senior citizen center and nursing home.
The CLIMB complex is within walking distance of downtown shops and services. After completing a special training course, students are allowed to travel on their own. Tapping red-tipped white canes, they walk to nearby stores, coffee shops and restaurants; some take the bus to Pasadena City College or Santa Anita Fashion Park.
For most, this is their first taste of independence. Before coming to CLIMB, many lived at home with overprotective parents or in a board and care facility or state institution.
"Before coming here, I never cooked or cleaned. . . . My mother did everything for me," said Caryn Silverman, 39, who lives in the halfway house. "Now, I take the bus to Santa Anita mall. . . . I'm hoping to move into my own apartment soon."
Perhaps the best tribute to CLIMB is a song written by Seaman about the center:
... We'll climb with a smile to let other people know we're just like everyone else....
Together we'll climb with people who'll show us the way.