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Chicago Lighthouse

The Chicago Lighthouse is the most comprehensive social service agency in the nation serving individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled, and Veterans. We were founded in 1906 by a small group of women who wanted to provide assistance to people who were blind or visually impaired. In 2014, we responded to growing needs we saw in the community by expanding our mission to include serving Veterans and people with disabilities.

The Chicago Lighthouse is the most comprehensive social service agency in the nation serving individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled, and Veterans. We were founded in 1906 by a small group of women who wanted to provide assistance to people who were blind or visually impaired. In 2014, we responded to growing needs we saw in the community by expanding our mission to include serving Veterans and people with disabilities.

Because we are always looking for new innovative ways to help the community, our story is one filled with “firsts”:

  • Our Low Vision Rehabilitation Clinic, which was founded in 1954 and dedicated by Helen Keller in 1955, serves people whose vision cannot be improved through standard corrective lenses. It is the first low vision clinic in the Midwest and the longest continuously operating low vision clinic in the United States.
  • In 1972, we were the first nonprofit organization for the blind to develop and operate an Early Intervention Program that serves infants and toddlers who are blind or visually impaired (and their families) in the home.
  • In 1981, we implemented the first Adaptive Technology Program in the State of Illinois.
  • In 2005, we created the first Legal Clinic in the country that provides free legal assistance and representation to people who are blind or visually impaired, the Arthur and Esther Kane Legal Clinic.
  • In 2013, we opened the Judy and Ray McCaskey Preschool, which is the first in the Midwest to offer an opportunity for both children with and without visual impairments to learn together in an inclusive environment.

The Lighthouse provides people of all ages with the tools they need to become independent, confident, and productive members of society. We do this through a combination of assistive technology, employment, educational, clinical, and rehabilitative services. We provide 39 programs and services to over 67,000 people throughout the Chicago metropolitan area annually.  The majority of our services are provided at no cost, and no one is turned away because of an inability to pay. Together, our Programs reach out to the individuals we serve and offer the help they need to live confidently and independently at every stage of life, from infancy until their senior years. Clearly, our services provide a beacon of hope to people who are blind, visually impaired, multi-disabled, Veterans, their loved ones, and their families.



Who Did the Grant Help?

According to census data, approximately 1.4 million people in Illinois have a disability. About 241,600 of those have a visual disability. Individuals with disabilities face numerous barriers to independence and quality of life. For example:

  • The Illinois Disability Status Report shows that only 26.3% of people with disabilities in the state have fulltime employment
  • 2% of this population lives below the poverty line, compared with 11.1% of the non-disabled population.
  • In the City of Chicago, 35.1% of people with a disability live below the poverty line, according to the ADA PARC American Community Survey.
  • Of the 4.3 million Veterans in the United States with a service-connected disability, only 45.8% are participating in the labor market, according to the United States Department of Labor.

The Lighthouse’s Programs address the root causes of our constituency’s struggles. We provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to overcome their challenges and improve their lives.

In order to serve our community more effectively, The Lighthouse constantly seeks new ways to increase awareness of our agency and our mission. Because the people we serve are often socially isolated, marketing is critical to reach them and advise them of the ways we can assist them. Outreach to potential community partners is also important for our success. For instance, we must seek out businesses who can hire our Employment Services Program clients and law offices who can partner with our Kane Legal Clinic. Finally, increased visibility also helps potential donors learn about how they can support our work.

What Problem Did the Grant Solve?

When The Visionaries contacted us and proposed a partnership, we recognized it as an invaluable opportunity. We saw that a Visionaries documentary profile would be very effective in helping us increase our visibility and improve outreach to potential clients, community partners, and donors, ultimately helping us better serve our community. It would not only expose The Lighthouse and our mission to a nationwide audience when it airs, it would also provide us with tools we need for additional expanded outreach in the future.

The Visionaries documentary series has showcased impactful nonprofit organizations on PBS since 1995. This award-winning series is extremely selective of which nonprofits it chooses to highlight. In fact, out of the 5,000 plus organizations who have applied over the years, only 200 have been chosen. Last year, the show’s Producer/Director, Jody Santos, reached out and invited The Chicago Lighthouse to be featured. It was an incredible opportunity. We were overjoyed when your foundation agreed to provide the funding to help us take advantage it, and we cannot thank you enough for the sponsorship.

Filming took place during the week of December 12, 2016. Jody Santos and the Visionaries crew visited The Chicago Lighthouse from Massachusetts to film several of our Programs and interview clients, staff, Board Members, and Lighthouse CEO, Dr. Janet Szlyk. In the spring of 2017, The Visionaries worked on production of the segments. The introduction and narration by actor, Sam Waterston, were recorded during the summer. The program is currently going through final editing, after which it will receive closed captioning and video description so that it can be accessible to those with vision loss or hearing loss.  Before the end of the year, we should know when PBS will air the segment in early 2018.

What Was the Impact of the Grant?

Once the documentary is complete, it will have an enormous impact on The Lighthouse’s visibility and marketing reach. Visionaries has aired on more than 100 public television stations and in 15 of the top 20 U.S. markets. The program’s broad reach gives our segment the potential to be viewed by millions of people across the country.

The benefits of the Visionaries documentary will extend beyond its initial airing on PBS:

  • It will be offered free of charge to PBS stations across the country, and it will also be licensed for unlimited, nonexclusive broadcast for two years.
  • The Visionaries mobile app will help extend the effects of the project, as will the integration of the project with our website.
  • The Visionaries will provide us with a shortened two to three minute development piece to help us share our message.
  • We will be provided with raw footage of the interviews for our future use in marketing and fundraising initiatives.
  • We will also receive a master DVD of the segment to use for marketing and development purposes.

As a result, The Visionaries documentary will give us the opportunity to dramatically increase awareness of the challenges faced by individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled or Veterans. It will also give us the opportunity to offer hope to viewers who are coping with those challenges and to their families and caregivers. In addition, it will inform potential new donors of our work, so they can partner with us.

In addition, this project will promote First Nonprofit, as you will be listed as the main underwriter when the show airs and on the master DVD.


The initial investment into the creation of The Visionaries profile will continue to pay off well into the future. Not only will the show itself be available for viewing and screening, we will also have access to the development piece, and raw footage, which will serve as important Lighthouse marketing tools.  We will be able to use these tools for outreach and fundraising campaigns, on our website and social media, and in creating training videos and presentations.

We would be happy to speak to other organizations, who are interested in partnering with The Visionaries or doing a similar documentary of their agency, about how we undertook the project, what we learned, and what we would do differently next time.