“It’s A Circus Out There!”

Last weekend we put the dogs up at a Doggy Hotel, packed up the car with way too much stuff (I take full blame for this as I absolutely LOVE road trips) and we headed to Louisville for the 22nd Annual VIPS (Visually Impaired Preschool Services) Family Retreat – “It’s A Circus Out There!”. We knew it would be a fun filled weekend, but I have to say the entire experience blew my expectations away.

While the actual Retreat was to begin on Saturday morning, there was an option for us out-of-towners to stay at the hotel for a discounted rate on Friday night as well as Saturday night. We arrived at the hotel around 4:00 pm and felt relief to, for once in our busy lives, have absolutely nothing to do. Lola has begun to show an interest in holding her own bottle (Hallelujah!), but sister still doesn’t quite get the whole concept. While she missed that day, she continues to try and put it all together. I must say the look on her face after the bottle exploded on her had her daddy and I laughing all night!

We were a good 20 minutes away from Downtown so we checked out Yelp to find some of the best restaurants in the city. We settled on a little Vietnamese dive called the Vietnamese Kitchen. The food was good, but the old Vietnamese man that said “baby napkin” as he proceeded to hand Lola a napkin is what truly made the experience. For some reason in my head, I expected him to be missing part of a finger just as my husband and then I could ask them to pose with their missing digits together, but after a thorough inspection, I saw he had all ten in place. After being reluctant, Rob let me take a picture of him using chopsticks with 9 1/2 fingers since that was the biggest concern for most of you readers.

We woke early on Saturday morning and headed downstairs for the complimentary continental breakfast. There were many families with young children there and I hinted to Rob that I thought maybe they were there for the Retreat, but just as most wouldn’t know Lola has a vision impairment from afar, many of these children didn’t appear to either. Although there was one little girl who looked to be over two who was almost a mirror image to Lola with her behaviors and mannerisms. I couldn’t help but stare as I continued to tell Rob “Look Lola does that too”, “Honey – look it’s like watching Lola”. I had a feeling we would see more of this little girl and sure enough we did.

Rebecca Davis, mother of a visually impaired child and founder of VIPS-Bloomington, told me she felt as if she had “arrived home” the very first time she walked into the VIPS Preschool in Lousiville. I have to say…I felt the very same way as Rebecca. The VIPS Preschool took over 20 years of hard labor, love and a lot of funding to create. Every minute detail was thought out to help ensure the visually impaired and blind children would have a place they could thrive in. There are classrooms set up with activities and toys geared specifically towards the visually impaired, hallways lit up with lights down below so a visually impaired child could navigate where she was going, textured paintings hanging low as location markers, a Kidstown arena with make believe stores like a Chase bank and a UPS store so that kids could experience real life but in a way they understand it.

Near the entrance there is a beautiful wall with reflecting hanging stars that have names on them. These are all of the donors that helped make the VIPS Preschool possible. But for those children who are completely blind, there is a special place they can stand so they can hear the echoes of the stars. They have a resource library where parents and caregivers can relax while their kid is in school. The shelves are full of books, manuals and DVD’s to help us get a better understanding of this different life with a visually impaired child.

My favorite part of the facility was the sensory room. The staff asked a group of teacher’s of the visually impaired what they would put in a sensory room and they literally went out and replicated it. The moment you walk in, you hear the light whisper of the fan blowing on the wind chimes. The lights are dimmed low and all you see are different sensory stations. I took a video just so you could get the full experience of how magical this room is although even the video doesn’t quite do it justice either.

[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5MpDMMmRB0″ width=”420″ height=”315″ jwplayer=”controlbar=bottom”]

We checked Lola into Respite where VIPS an army of TVI’s, nurses and nursing students to help care for the children. One nursing student immediately reached out for Lola and assured us that she would be OK. They had a care sheet all about Lola that I had previously filled out so all that was left was for us to quietly slip out of the room.

Annie Hughes, Lola’s favorite lady!

After prying me away from not only Lola, but also the Preschool, Rob and I went back to the hotel for the real reason we were at the Retreat. We parents spent the day meeting one another, learning valuable information and enjoying ourselves without the worry of our children. The day was packed with speakers who taught us everything from CPR training to Emotion Coaching to Special Needs Trust planning. We engaged in activities where we tried on goggles to help us understand life with different visual impairments. We played games and won door prizes (we I picked out a Halloween dish and “The Lorax”) and had a wonderful lunch as well as a delicious dinner.

Quite often, someone would check in to tell us how much people loved Lola which, of course, came as no surprise to Rob and me. We were assured she was happy and doing just fine. The motto was “No news is good news” and we tried our hardest to remember that. After dinner, we were able to choose between a movie or a comedy show – we chose the comedy show at the Comedy Caravan where we saw the Thompson brothers who were quite hilarious. It felt good to be out as adults with other adults and laugh at rather racy topics. I knew it was almost time to pick up Lola as I began to get that anxious feeling in my belly. The one where we just can’t get to her fast enough because my heart hurts from being away from her. I thought as she got older the feeling would begin to ease up, but the drive back to VIPS reminded me that that instinctual feeling as a mother longing to be with her child will never go away. Lola clearly had a good time and was worn out from Respite as she never woke even after a change into her jammies.

The festivities continued on Sunday morning over at the VIPS Preschool. I was excited because the parents would get to play with their children at the Preschool. We were greeted with a warm welcome from the staff, exclaiming how great Lola was on Saturday and how they “absolutely loved [her]”. We enjoyed hot, fresh waffles donated by the Waffle House and participated in games and activities.

Lola with VIPS-Bloomington founder, Rebecca Davis

Jealous of not being able to hang out in the sensory room the day before, I asked if we could take Lola in there to see her reaction to the room. Without hesitation the staff said yes and opened the room for us. In there, we watched Lola explore a world that seemed designed just for her. She experienced each station with a mesmerized look on her face. One that showed a little girl at ease and curious with wonder about what she was seeing.

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We were one of the last families to leave VIPS and I couldn’t help but hold back the tears. The entire weekend was so amazing and one that I will never forget. Had we not found Annie Hughes, Rebecca Davis and VIPS, I’m not quite sure where Lola would be with the use of her vision. I’m not sure how Rob and I would handle not having a better understanding for the challenges Lola faces with her vision. The resources, the help, the advice, the hope that VIPS gives us has changed our lives for the better. After seeing the Preschool, I now get why Rebecca Davis drove her daughter, Eliza, the distance she did from Bloomington, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky. The staff at VIPS gets it. They understand how to teach our children and no amount of time, gas or money could replace that. Thankfully, with the help of Annie and Rebecca, the resources that VIPS offers can come into our own home. Their goal is to eventually have enough funding to open a VIPS Preschool right here in Indiana. VIPS-Bloomington is on their own for funding. They do not get any help from the State at all which means they rely solely on private donations and grants. They are just getting into the initial stages of fundraising and as Lola’s parents, we will make a promise to help get the word out any way we can. It’s funny, but I play the lotto every week. You could call it my vice. I always talk about all of the wonderful things I would do to help others, but now after seeing the impact the Preschool has had on myself and my family as well as hundreds of other children and families, I know the very first thing I would invest in…I would commit to opening a school just like VIPS-Louisville right here in Indianapolis.

To the entire staff and volunteers at VIPS that made the Retreat what it was…we thank you from the bottom of our grateful hearts. We can’t wait to go back next year!

If you would like to donate to VIPS-Bloomington, please write to:

Visually Impaired Preschool Services
2600 Henderson Street No. 154
Bloomington, IN 47401

Put “VIPS-Bloomington” on the memo line.

Here is one more video from the sensory room:

[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6JxFFwVdd0″ width=”420″ height=”315″ jwplayer=”controlbar=bottom”]

Have a great weekend everyone!