PITTSFIELD -- William L. Foley lost his eyesight at a young age after being trampled on by two runaway horses. Not wanting the loss of his vision to alter his way of life, the Cambridge native and Pittsfield transplant, decided to start a workshop for the blind in 1910.
By 1922, he and seven other men organized what would become the Berkshire Benevolent Association for the Blind, a support group and community for blind people in the county. Flash forward 90 years, and Foley's impact can be felt in a big way, with the association now totaling about 30 members and offering services like free rides given by volunteer drivers.
"It's a very strong club that is unique in that it offers these services to a wide variety of people," said Ginger Weber, the association's president.
The organization, the oldest of its kind in Massachusetts, meets the first Monday of every month at the Dalton Veterans of Foreign War post, and is open to anyone who is at least 18 years old, a resident of the Berkshires for at least six months, and legally blind. Weber said the club sponsors special events throughout the year, like a holiday party in December, when a volunteer is presented an award, originally established by The Berkshire Eagle, named in Foley's honor.
During last week's Oct. 1 meeting, the association celebrated its 90th birthday with a catered meal for the 55 members, volunteers, and their guests, who came to enjoy a birthday cake and an evening of live music by local singer Connie Boyle.
Weber has felt the benefits of being part of the association's community firsthand. Weber has retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, a degenerative hereditary eye disease that affects about 1 in 4,000 people, according to the National Center for Biotechnology's PubMed Health website.
The condition affects vision gradually, and Weber, whose brother also has the disease, did not start to develop blindness until she was 45. During a trip to the emergency room, someone approached Weber and suggested that she contact Phillip Shallies, a longtime member and former president of the association.
Shallies has known about the association for most of his life, making him the group's unofficial historian. He said the group struggled with membership in the early 1960s until women were allowed to join in 1964. Shallies became aware of the organization when his mother joined in 1967, and only a few years later, he joined it himself, after learning he had usher syndrome, a disease that causes both blindness and hearing loss.
Shallies said the organization is more than a club; it's family. And in many ways he means that literally. Both Shallies and his mother served as the association's president, and it is through the group that he met his partner, Janie Ray.
Ray has been a volunteer for the association for more than 25 years, helping out with everything from fundraising to giving rides to members. She said it's been an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to serve the area's blind community.
"I love being a part of it, and they made me an honorary member," Ray said.
Both Shallies and Weber said it's important that the club dispels misconceptions about blind people.
"This group fights the stereotype that blind people just sit in the corner and don't do anything," said Shallies, who recently restored his '66 Chevy Nova, and has participated in the Eye Rock 500, an annual race in upstate New York for blind drivers and their sighted co-drivers.
Weber has been active in other ways -- seven years ago, she wrote "Eyes on the Heart," an inspirational book for people who are blind or visually impaired.
"I had my family with me when I lost my vision," Weber said. "A lot of people don't have that, and the club is very valuable to them. It reminds them that they are not alone."
Where to call
For more information on the Berkshire Benevolent Association for the Blind, call (413) 684-1220.