The Northwest Association for Blind Athletes has reached a milestone. The homegrown nonprofit agency, the big vision of legally blind Billy Henry, has been awarded a three-year, $150,000 grant to expand its programs and services.
"It's the largest grant we've ever received," he said. "This is a huge step forward for us, and it comes at a perfect time."
The grantor is KMR Group Foundation, led by local businessman and philanthropist Marty Rifkin. "We appreciate the incredible mission of the NWABA to touch the lives of the visually impaired by providing sports opportunities," Rifkin said.
Henry said he will use the money to employ a full-time program director for three years. That will help extend the agency's offerings to many more people, he said, and provide some welcome breathing room.
The agency will move from its 1,000-square-foot basement office downtown to a nearby ground-floor office that's twice that size, Henry said. The additional space and convenience will be a boon for clients and volunteers who, for example, now will be able to come to the office to borrow equipment that's stored on site.
Like tandem bikes. There's no outing that's more popular with visually impaired people than "getting to feel the wind in their hair" and the other joys of a simple bike ride, Henry said; with additional tandem bikes the agency now can afford, plus volunteers to do the steering, more clients than ever will be able to stop by and then hit Vancouver's bike lanes.
In August, the NWABA will host two big tandem-biking Saturdays and will welcome volunteers to help make it happen. Henry said he recently provided a tandem bike for a little girl who has lost her sight to brain cancer: "It was her first bike ride. It made me feel so good to be able to do that for her."
That's the point of the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes: Facilitating physical recreation and athletics for people with visual impairment, mostly through equipment loans and teaching outings but also through grants and scholarships. Henry himself travels all around the Pacific Northwest to share numerous recreation and competition opportunities — from wrestling and golf to hiking and skiing — with schools, clubs, veterans groups and others.
"We need to be doing this," he said. "There are thousands of people who don't have any opportunities for recreation without some help."
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, nearly 130,000 people in Washington are blind or have "serious difficulty" seeing, even with glasses or contact lenses. Henry said approximately 70 percent of visually impaired people have "never experienced any sports or physical fitness activity at all."
Henry, whose love of athletics despite being visually impaired led him to start the association in his parents' Hazel Dell garage in 2007 — when he was all of 15 years old — has paid only himself and a part-time clerical assistant thus far. He is also a full-time student who just graduated from Clark College and is getting ready to start a course of study in business administration at Washington State University Vancouver this fall.
So, he said, he's looking forward to off-loading some of his typical 60 weekly hours of NWABA work. He said the unique job he's offering has garnered a great group of candidates from all across the nation.