Sitting on the couch of his Greenwood home, 2-year-old Merrick Bravard-Decker stared intently at the jungle animals illustrated on the pages of the book in front of him.
With the help of David Sterne, the lead blind and low vision specialist with the Indiana chapter of Visually Impaired Preschool Services, he pushed a button on the cardboard-page book, setting off a small-but-fierce tiger’s roar.
Mimicking the big cat on the page, Merrick let out a raspy push of breath.
Sterne cheered and reciprocated: “Rawr!”
VIPS provides early intervention with a visual specialization to children ages 0 to 3. Providers visit children and their families in-home, providing specialized instruction based on that child’s diagnosis with the goal of improving their sight or sharpening their other senses to help them better navigate the world around them.
Merrick, who was born at 24 weeks gestation, was diagnosed with cortical visual impairment, a condition which is neurological, not visual. With CVI, the eyes can receive the visual stimuli, but the brain can’t interpret them. But, with early intervention, the brain can be taught to make some of those connections.
After working with Sterne for around two years, Merrick laughs at books that make animal noises and loves playing with toys that light up, his mother, Aubrey Bravard-Decker said. He’s exploring new textures, making choices more quickly and his fine motor skills are improving.
“When we first started, he could only see reds, oranges yellows, in that color spectrum,” Bravard-Decker said. “Now, he sees all the colors, he reaches for stuff, he’s a lot more interactive.”
Meredith Howell, VIPS’ regional director, knows first-hand how critical early intervention can be.
In 2012, Howell and her family became the 31st family VIPS served. Her daughter, Lola, was also diagnosed with cortical visual impairment. Now 8-years-old, Lola still struggles with things like depth perception and fatigue, but Howell said it would be difficult for a stranger to tell she’s visually impaired.
“Watching her literally learn how to see, her brain learn how to see,” Howell said, “it was nothing short of a miracle.”
VIPS also provides services and support to parents and extended family, like grandparents, with family resource nights, a lending library and connections to other service providers. When children age out of VIPS’ services, therapists will often attend case conferences with teachers or school officials to help ensure the child gets the help they need in the new environment.
“If it’s one less worry off of the family’s plate,” Howell said, “then we really want to be able to support them along the journey.”
“VIPS empowers families by providing educational excellence to young children with visual impairments in order to build a strong foundation for reaching their highest potential,” Howell said.
In fiscal year 2018, VIPS served nearly 250 children across the state. So far in 2019, they’ve served 210 and expect to surpass last year’s total.
Supporting VIPS through financial contributions is the best way to ensure the organization can continue serving children across Indiana, Howell said.
“Every dollar we don’t have to spend on buying folders or buying these random office-type supplies,” she said, “is a dollar we can put into serving another child.”
VIPS will soon have a Family Resource Center on the first floor of Line Lofts, an accessible, affordable senior housing development under construction on East Washington Street. The center, expected to open in early 2021, will include an onsite therapy room, a sensory room and an outdoor playscape.
The organization broke ground on the project Oct. 30 and is raising funds to continue building the facility.
Volunteers are needed for special events and fundraisers, family holiday parties, administrative tasks or to provide respite care for children as families attend retreats or classes. For more information about donations and volunteer opportunities, visit vips.org/vips-indiana/.
Those interested in donating items may do so by shopping from VIPS’ Amazon wishlist: https://amzn.to/2QP7S9J.
The shared mission of IndyStar’s Our Children initiative and annual Season for Sharing campaign is to use the power of journalism to make a difference for Central Indiana youths. We invite you to join us in making a financial contribution. The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust will match up to $25,000 in donations. All charitable donations are tax deductible.
With this year’s campaign, we’re remembering Matt Tully, who was a reporter and columnist at the Star for 16 years before his death last fall. Tully’s work inspired the creation of Our Children, and we’ll be using funds raised this year to provide grants to early childhood education providers in partnership with the Matthew L. Tully Memorial Fund.
Go to indystar.com/ocdonate to learn how to donate online and to read stories about work being done to help children in our community. If you prefer to send a check, please mail to: Central Indiana Community Foundation, Attn: Our Children, 615 N. Alabama St., Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46204. You also can donate by texting “SHARING” to 80888.
Address: 1100 W. 42nd St., Suite 228.
Call IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317444-6156. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.