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Volunteers keep blind in sight
04 December 2007
by Niko Kloeten

Auckland, New Zealand: They may come from different countries and different cultures but the volunteers at the Blind and Low Vision Education Network campus at Homai have one thing in common: They love helping other people. International Volunteer Day, 5 December, recognises people who give up their own time to help.

There are about 30 volunteers at the campus, 10 of whom work at the Auckland Visual Resource Centre, which makes collages, books and other learning materials for blind and low-vision children.

Twelve work at the campus music school, while others help in the school and early childhood centre.

There is even one volunteer who looks after the senses garden, where blind and vision-impaired people can enjoy plants and flowers that have interesting smells and textures.

The longest-serving volunteer at the campus, Jan Smyth, has been helping out at the Auckland Visual Resource Centre for 22 years making tactile collages.

These are pictures that can be felt as well as seen. They go into braille books.

What keeps Ms Smyth coming back year after year?

"I enjoy doing it because it feels like I’m doing something useful. I just want to do something to help these children who aren’t as fortunate as my own children and grandchildren," she says.

"You need patience to be able to do it. We get given some pretty off-the-wall designs to do but we don’t complain about it, we just get on with it.

"The other day I met a former student at this school who still had a book I’d made 12 years ago.

"It’s a great feeling knowing my book was that important."

Student Henriette Jepsen is new to making pictures for the blind and vision-impaired, but she is also enjoying it.

She is in New Zealand on an exchange programme with the University of Aarhus, the second largest university in her home country Denmark with more than 20,000 students.

Five months into her six-month stay in New Zealand, she has just finished making a 12-page braille picture book called Come with Me to Denmark, a process she says was very time-intensive.

"The most difficult part was making the plane that I put in there," she says.

"I had to try it a number of times before I got it right. It’s great when you see a big smile on the children’s faces when they read the book."

While she is looking forward to returning to Denmark she says she will miss New Zealand a lot too.

Fellow Danish student Susan Alstrup says New Zealanders have certain values that make them unique.

"You can feel it when you’re with other people; they’re very helpful. They’ll drop everything to help you out. They’ve got a lot of patience."

Five Asian women also volunteer at the campus to help improve their English skills in a work environment.

One of these women, Winnie Liu from Hong Kong, has been here four years and now works in the early childhood centre.

Carol Van Deursen, who works at the Auckland Visual Resource Centre, puts it simply when describing the importance of volunteers at the school.

"I couldn’t do my job without them," she says.