Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage Helps Visually Impaired Students Learn to Cook

Volunteers Teach Visually Impaired Students to Cook

Written By: Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti
Photographed By: Hilary Peters Braille Institute

“Honey, in alphabetical order I am blind, crazy, crippled, and deaf but I haven’t lost my smile. I love this place! I would come here every day if I could,” one of the students, Charlesetta, says laughing. “I like this cooking class because we get to eat what we make. I don’t have to bring my own lunch. This place is a haven. We help each other and learn skills to be more independent.”

The six Braille Institute locations serve 75,000 people each year. Some are bused from Yucca Valley, Desert Hot Springs, Redlands, Yucaipa, Calimesa, Moreno Valley, Banning/Beaumont and Hemet. All services are free to the students—including the popular cooking class.

Felice Chiapperini, field services manager at the Braille Institute, is very proud of the newly remodeled kitchen. It is actually two kitchens. On one side the appliances are gas, and students who have gas appliances in their homes work there. The other side is electric. The counters are bright white to contrast food and anything else set on the counters. In the center of the kitchen is a big, bright white teaching counter. Margaret Blomberg, a retired fourth grade teacher and the instructor for the cooking class said, “This building was constructed in 1989 and we really needed a new kitchen. They brought us in and asked us what we needed and we got the ideal kitchen. It is bright and beautiful with a big teaching counter. I have granite at home and things just get lost on it.

I’ve been here for six years and teaching for three,” she says. “As soon as I walked in the door I knew I was home. This place is full of friendly, loving people. I started as a student and asked if I could help out. When I finished the first semester, my name was on the list next to ‘cooking class’ and I have been teaching the class ever since. It really is the blind leading the blind.”

As the students arrive, Blomberg greets them enthusiastically, “Today we are going to make a bacon, lettuce and tomato salad.” The lesson begins with Blomberg and the students deciding the best way to cook the bacon, boil the pasta, chop the tomato and onion, tear the lettuce and measure the salad dressing. “We match talents and skills to create classes around particular abilities. One lady loves to do dishes, so she teaches us all her tricks for doing the dishes,” says Blomberg.

The students share devices they have brought to make cooking easier and safer. One woman has a kitchen glove made of stainless steel thread, which she wears while she chops the tomatoes. The knife will not cut the threads. Another has a glove that reaches her elbow so she will not burn her arm on the oven rack when taking the bacon out of the hot oven. A third woman pulled out a rectangular, plastic box with a metal grid on the top. She placed the onion on the grid, closed the lid and presto, a chopped onion. If someone is not comfortable using a sharp knife, there is a drawer full of special “lettuce” knives which will cut vegetables but will not cut a hand. The measuring cups are marked with velcro dots. The numerator is on the underside of the cup and the denominator is on the handle. For instance, a quarter cup has one dot on the cup and four dots on the handle.

Braille Institute was founded in 1919 in the Los Angeles home of Montana cowboy J. Robert Atkinson with the financial help of Mary and John Longyear. Atkinson lost his sight from an accidental gunshot wound and learned to read braille and transcribe print into braille. In 1973, the Rancho Mirage Regional center opened.

This is truly a remarkable place, and not just because of the wide variety of classes and services. Some of the classes, like the cooking class, life skills class, and sensory awareness class, help students learn to live with vision loss. Other enrichment classes offer woodworking, piano, art, crochet, line dancing, and more. This is a remarkable place because of the people who come here and the feelings they express about their experiences with each other. In the words of 93-year-old Alice, “People need to know this is a good safe place to come. It is a blessing to be here. I have gout in both ankles but I didn’t want to miss my class. How long can I wait at my age? You would be surprised what people who can’t see can do. I would do anything for [this place].”

Recipe for the BLT Salad:

Bacon arranged on cookie sheets and baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes
Romaine lettuce chopped or torn
Tomatoes chopped
Red onion chopped
Bow tie pasta
1 cup of ranch and 1/2 cup of zesty Italian salad dressing

Give Back: Volunteers are always welcome at Braille Institute. Many of the volunteers are students themselves.

Braille Institute
70251 Ramon Rd
Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
Students With Reduced Vision Learn to Cook at the Braille Institute

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