A charity founded to help soldiers blinded during the First World War is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.
Vision Support Harrogate District (VSHD) began in 1921 in response to concerns about the welfare of local people living with sight loss. Its aims were to help preserve people’s sight where possible, provide helpful aids, and encourage suitable employment, recreation and social activities.
One hundred years on, these initial aims still largely apply today. The independent charity helps people across the district to maintain their independence, access support, develop new skills and take part in a range of social and wellbeing activities.
VSHD’s director Tanya Stimpson said:
In some ways, what visually impaired people need and what we are doing now has not changed much in a century. We understand how frightening and lonely it can be for people experiencing sight loss, and we are here to help, support and advise them and their families as much as we can.
The charity works with people who have recently been diagnosed with an eye condition, are registered as sight impaired or need help for someone they know who is experiencing sight loss.
At its drop-in centre on East Parade, Harrogate, as well as at satellite meetings in Ripon and Pateley Bridge, a range of activities are run mainly by volunteers to help people live independently and stay connected with their community. They can learn practical and IT skills, take up new hobbies, and attend social events, fitness sessions and leisure activities. The centre also stocks a selection of low cost daily living aids.
For those living further afield within the district who may be feeling isolated or unable to access services, VSHD also offers a helpline, telephone befriending service and home visits.
Our wonderful volunteers help us provide not only vital support but also the everyday, life-fulfilling activities that help our members maintain their independence and enjoy special moments with friends.
The centre also runs regular eye clinics to offer people emotional and practical support, as well as supporting Harrogate Hospital’s eye clinic and low vision clinic patients through a referral service.
Eye clinic liaison officer, Lauren Kaptain, said:
The sooner we can chat with anyone who is adjusting to sight loss, the better. I am here to help them navigate their eye care and sight loss journey, to listen and let them know they are not alone.
They may be concerned about staying in work, driving or managing at home with everyday tasks. There are just so many little things that someone would never really know about, which are not always easy to find, but which can make a massive difference.
The charity was founded on February 4, 1921, with the first official meeting of the Harrogate Blind Association. The year before, Parliament had passed The Blind Persons Act, giving official recognition to people who could not see well enough to work, and entitling them to a pension at the age of 50. The act was partly due to an increase in people with sight loss after the First World War.
The organisation soon became known as the Harrogate and District Society for the Blind. Although Ripon was affiliated to the society in 1922, it wasn’t until 1979 that a weekly social club was set up. This became the Ripon Vision Support Group, which still exists today.
The charity, which changed its name to Vision Support Harrogate District in 2016, now has regular contact with over 300 visually impaired people, is a point of contact for 400 more and makes around 1,000 outreach visits each year. Membership and most services are free to join.
It achieves all of this through donations and fundraising, as well as the invaluable support of a dedicated team of volunteers, including its trustees.
Chairman Robert Horner, a director of Harrogate accountancy firm Lithgow Perkins, has been a trustee of VSHD for many years:
As an independent charity, the main change over the decades has been the cuts in funding. Today, we rely solely on the generosity of local individuals and businesses, as well as the occasional grant for a special piece of equipment or project.
The charity has close connections with other local groups, some of which go right back to its beginnings. Harrogate Rotary Club was also formed in 1921, and in June of that year hosted a lunch for visually impaired people, beginning a relationship between the two organisations that continues to this day. They are hoping to hold joint centenary celebrations this year, including a garden party and planting a flower bed in the Valley Gardens.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the centre in East Parade has been closed and the satellite meetings in Ripon and Pateley Bridge have stopped. But the small team of staff members and volunteers have continued to offer support and information through weekly phone calls, newsletters and on social media.
It’s been a difficult year but we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of local people. We are so grateful to everyone involved in helping our organisation, not just at this challenging time, but over the last 100 years. From our volunteers and trustees to all the local people and businesses who raise vital funds for us, we couldn’t have reached this amazing milestone without you.
Contact Vision Support Harrogate District on 01423 565 915 to visit, donate, or become a member or volunteer.