On March 19th of last month, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held for the new home of St. Joseph’s School for the Blind—a state-of-the-art facility, located at 761 Summit Avenue in Jersey City. Hundreds of elated guests showed up for the official opening. With a current population of 130 blind and visually impaired students and those with multiple disabilities from infancy to age 21, St. Joseph’s School for the Blind has always been known as one of the most caring facilities for the blind. St. Joseph’s is the only school of its kind in New Jersey.
The former St. Joseph’s School for the Blind, located on Baldwin Avenue in Jersey City, was a worn down relic of another era with an elevator that barely worked. The new, two-story facility, offers 20 classrooms as well as an Enrichment Media Center, a heated therapeutic swimming pool, a therapy suite; used for occupational therapy, physical therapy, and orientation and mobility training, plus a large gymnasium and an art and music room. At the ribbon cutting event, a group of St. Joseph’s students sang an uplifting song called “St. Joseph’s Family” to the cheering audience; it captured the joyful feeling of the day.
Sister Maureen Collins, Province Leader for the Sister’s of Saint Joseph of Peace, the Catholic order that founded St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in 1891, is delighted with the new facilities. “Everything is new to the students. The transition from the much smaller school to the new much larger facility was wonderful and exciting for the students. And I think what the children are enjoying the most is the space.” St. Joseph’s is a non-denominational school, Sister Maureen points out. “Race, color or creed is not an issue at St. Joseph’s. Our mission as sponsors to St. Joseph’s School for the Blind is to minister to blind, visually impaired and multi-handicapped children, regardless of their religious background,” Sister Maureen explained. “Our order came to Jersey City in 1886 and we have been administering to the poor, the underprivileged and the underserved ever since.” Education at St. Joseph’s is done by highly trained certified teachers with the help of caring volunteers.
Gerald Kitzhoffer, has been the chief school administrator at St. Joseph’s for two years and before that was the assistant administrator for the school. He knows the struggle it took to make the new facility a reality. “It’s important to know that local school districts, fund raising drives, donations and grants pay for students’ tuition, parents pay nothing. We funded the new school through a tax-exempt bond that turned into a 15-million dollar mortgage. And this is quite a commitment for the school. Previously we were in a building that was mortgage free.” With the new mortgage, Kitzhoffer is quite aware that they need to kick up their funding in order to make this work. “We can’t do a capital campaign for the building because we have tax-exempt bonds so we can’t do that to pay the mortgage down. We are hoping that local organizations and individuals will help us.” One of the funding streams that St. Joseph’s has been lucky enough to have is the Phil Rizzuto celebrity golf outing that is held once a year. But Kitzhoffer is now looking at other ways to generate funds as well. “We are looking to hold a boat ride event on the Hudson River to create new funding as well as other ways to get our neighbors to help.”
How they received the three acre parcel where the new school now sits is a great example of government working with non-profits. “In 1991, former Jersey City mayor, Gerald Mc Cann, came to St. Joseph’s on the school’s 100th anniversary and donated the land. It was a wonderful gift,” Kitzhoffer said. “The first thing we built here in 1996 was the Concordia House which is our residential facility. And after that we built the Phil Rizzuto multi-sensory playground. With our new school up and running, we now have a real campus.”
With this new facility, Kitzhoffer believes that the future for the students at St. Joseph’s has never looked brighter. “We now have a state-of-the-art school with great technology, which will create an opportunity for the students to grow and develop in a building that looks more like a school building. This school offers so many more opportunities from the new gymnasium where we have space to do things, and our therapeutic pool, plus our two new elevators. Many of our students are in wheelchairs and strollers and this just gives them more mobility. It’s a new era for us.”
One of the more noticeable changes at the new facility is how many of the students who had been in the old school on Baldwin Avenue are reacting to the new school. “We were a bit worried how our students would react to their new school. But they just love it,” Kitzhoffer said. “I see a change in our children. They just seem more calm and happy and ready for the future.”
Ed Lucas has been involved with the St. Joseph’s School for the Blind for over fifty years: as a student, a volunteer after graduating, and now as the director of development and public education. Mr. Lucas was not born blind, an accident while playing baseball as a young boy caused his blindness. His days as a student at St. Joseph’s in the 1950’s changed his life. “Going to St. Joseph’s changed my life completely. When I lost my sight I thought it was the end of the world. My image of a blind person was someone standing on a corner with a cup. I remember walking around St. Joseph’s with my hands out in front of me and a sister made me put my hands down and told me not to put my hands back up.” In the beginning, Mr. Lucas felt sorry for himself. But again it was the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace who told him that they were all in the same boat and for him to start rowing. “At first I thought the sisters were mean but as time went on it gave me the impetus to go forward. Before long I was running up steps. They wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself, and they taught me how to become independent.”
For 17 years, The Phil Rizzuto Celebrity Charity Golf Classic has been raising money for St. Joseph’s. Ed Lucas became friends with Phil Rizzuto (the former NY Yankee star and announcer) when Rizzuto befriended him as young boy newly blind. Through the years their friendship has grown even closer and the charity golf classic was born. This year the classic will be held on August 20th, 2007. To spend a day out with some great people and help a great cause call 201-653-0578 for reservations.