A Century of Leadership and Counting
Founded in 1905 by Winifred and Edith Holt, the Lighthouse quickly became a pioneer in the field of vision rehabilitation. Today it is a leading worldwide resource in helping people overcome the challenges of vision loss.
Envisioning the Possibilities
A trip to Florence, Italy, for the two young Holt sisters provided the inspiration for their mission to serve those without sight. During a concert there, Winifred noticed a group of blind school children in the audience who were enthralled by the music. She discovered that a free ticket program provided the children with access to the concert. Winifred was inspired to do the same back home in New York City and the Holt sisters established the Lighthouse Free Ticket Bureau in 1903.
With a borrowed $400 and only their dress allowances, Winifred and Edith Holt lit the Lighthouse lamp. They founded "Lighthouse No. 1" to help people without sight help themselves. The visionary sisters broke down many barriers, and opened their family brownstone at 44 East 78th Street to all those in need.
The Early Years
In 1906, the Lighthouse was officially incorporated as The New York Association for the Blind, Inc. A home teaching program of counseling and instruction began, marking our first community-based direct service--the forerunner of today's professional vision rehabilitation services.
An original Lighthouse goal was the prevention of blindness. Winifred Holt undertook this mission personally when she traveled to Albany in 1907 to draft a bill making the use of a medical measure at birth mandatory to prevent "ophthalmia neonatorum." In addition, Winifred was responsible for establishing the first lay committee to address blindness prevention. She also participated in founding the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.
Shortly thereafter, in 1909, the Lighthouse was instrumental in persuading the New York City Board of Education to admit children with impaired vision to public schools for the first time.
Dedication and Inspiration
In 1912 a workshop on East 42nd Street for men to make marketable products, and by opening their home to women to create handcraft items was established to provide employment for the visually impaired. Teachers provided all-important training in workshop, clerical, sales and business skills to thousands of New Yorkers. "Light Through Work" became the Lighthouse motto.
1912 also saw the first of several Lighthouse camps for visually impaired children. Called the River Lighthouse, the camp opened in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, NY. The success of this summer program led to expansion and the launch of Camp Munger in Bear Mountain, NY in 1923.
Music was the inspiration for Winifred's life-long work. From the earliest days, music classes were offered at The Lighthouse and in 1913, our music school was officially founded. The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School is dedicated to artistic and educational excellence, garnering high regard among music schools in the New York area. Today, it stands proudly as the only community music school in the country for people who are visually impaired. It also serves as a resource to music educators and performers nationwide as the leading provider of accessible music instruction.
Winifred's mission took her around the world twice. In 1915 she organized "Le Phare de Bordeaux," the first Lighthouse on the Continent to help soldiers blinded in World War I, followed by others in Paris, Rome, Warsaw, Canton and several in Japan. Winifred's reach extended to the Middle East, India, South America and numerous destinations en route, where "Lighthouse work" was launched.
A small kindergarten group was formed at the Lighthouse in 1925 followed by the founding of the Lighthouse Nursery School in 1933 -- the first non-residential nursery school for children who were blind in the United States.
By 1967, the Lighthouse opened a child development center, later named the Jean Stralem Child Development Center in 1994, and later dedicated the The Ethel and Samuel J. LeFrak School in 2011. Children who are visually impaired learn alongside their sighted peers for a more enriching educational experience.
In 1952, the Lighthouse forged an affiliation with the Ophthalmological Foundation, which became the research arm of the Lighthouse at that time. The Foundation was the first to devote its resources to the research of blindness.
In recognition of the growing need to serve people with partial sight during the post-war era, in addition to blindness, the Lighthouse Low Vision Service was founded in 1953. This trailblazing service--the nation's largest low vision clinic at the time--was dedicated as the Eleanor E. Faye Low Vision Service in 1994. Dr. Faye, a leader in low vision care, pioneered the Lighthouse low vision service model.
In 1962 The Lighthouse merged with the Blind Service Agency of Westchester, enhancing the delivery of services to residents of Westchester County. The Lighthouse still has a strong presence in Westchester, with the re-opening of their Westchester office in 2011.
In 1975, the first professional training program in low vision care was established at the Lighthouse--the only program accredited by the American Medical Association at that time. Lighthouse International continues to provide state-of-the-art continuing education programs available in clinical low vision care and vision rehabilitation for new and experienced professionals and paraprofessionals.
In 1981, the Pisart Award was inaugurated to recognize "a person who has made a noteworthy contribution to the prevention, cure or treatment of severe vision impairment or blindness." This annual $30,000 award was made possible by longtime Lighthouse volunteer, Madame Georgette Pisart, through her will.
In 1985 the Lighthouse was the first organization of its kind on the East Coast to provide rehabilitation and counseling to people with Aids-Related Vision Impairment during the devastating AIDS epidemic of the 80's.
In 1989, The New York Association for the Blind, Inc., became The Lighthouse Inc., reflecting the deep philosophical shift embraced by the organization--away from defining people by their disability and toward emphasizing their individual potential.
Shaping the Field
The Lighthouse established the National Vision Rehabilitation Cooperative in 1990 to champion issues related to vision impairment and vision rehabilitation. In 2004, this cadre of agencies across the country became the National Vision Rehabilitation Association. Their mission was to advance access to professional vision rehabilitation services for all Americans.
In 1998, The Lighthouse Inc. became Lighthouse International, in recognition of our global reach--and outreach--on behalf of the 180 million people who are visually impaired worldwide.
Our international programs, stretched around the world, following in Winifred's footsteps. And the first annual "train-the-trainers" program, which was designed to strengthen the provision of low vision care in areas of the world where resources were scarce, was initiated in Mexico. Since then, the Lions Club International has fostered the development of these prototypical programs.
Mapping the Future and Looking Forward
In 2000, the publication of "The Lighthouse Handbook on Vision Impairment and Vision Rehabilitation", published by Oxford University Press, defined--for the first time--a consolidated field of vision rehabilitation that addresses the full continuum of vision impairment, from partial sight to blindness. In 2011, "The Lighthouse Clinician’s Guide to Low Vision Practice", a comprehensive and updated publication from the experts at Lighthouse International, was published.
In appreciation of the significant contribution made by the late Henry Grunwald to break the silence barrier and raise public awareness of vision impairment, the Lighthouse established The Henry Grunwald Award for Public Service and named him as the first recipient. Since then, recipients have included The Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg, 108th Mayor of New York City, Harry Belafonte, Anita Volz Wien and Dr. Bruce Rosenthal.
The largest individual commitment for financial support was received in 2004: a $10 million gift from The Sol Goldman Charitable Trust to name our headquarters The Sol and Lillian Goldman Building. This gift supports our cornerstone vision rehabilitation services for people who are blind or partially sighted in our second century.
In 2005, Lighthouse International celebrated its centennial. We continue to offer new and innovative ways to help people overcome the challenges of visions loss and to enjoy productive, active and independent lives.
We serve as both a resource of information and a service provider as we look ahead to the next 100 years!