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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t; I just don’t enjoy it.

Still … I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn to cook if I couldn’t see.

At the Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage, Chef John Phillips teaches people with limited vision how to develop what he calls “the basic skills a food handler would need to know in a professional kitchen,” including using knives safely (“There are NO plastic knives in my kitchen!”), chopping vegetables, making sauces, defrosting frozen foods, baking meatloaf, gauging food temperature, practicing sanitary precautions and using a fire extinguisher—all the basic skills that enable someone to safely prepare simple meals.

“I sometimes have four or five people in the class who can’t see at all, so I will pair them up with someone with at least partial sight,” Phillips says. “We don’t do foods that are deep-fried, but I can teach them how to flip an egg—we practice with a slice of bread—bake barbecue chicken, and make vegetable soup.”

Phillips, 55, a La Quinta resident, has lived full-time in the Coachella Valley for 23 years. Born and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., he began working in kitchens at the age of 14 as a dishwasher. “In my family, my brothers and I always worked. My parent said we had to work for our ‘stuff,’ so we always had the nicest cars and clothes.”

One night, the fry cook didn’t show up, and Phillips’ boss told him he was going to be the fry cook that night.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I don’t think anyone really does until after high school,” he said. By age 18, he was already cooking full-time.

Phillips went to culinary school. Some of his teachers owned a catering company, so he picked up additional work. “In those days, we had a cow hanging in the back, and would cut the mold off and cook the steaks. It’s not like that anymore,” he said.

Phillips was working at King’s Supper Club on the Mississippi River when he decided he wanted to take a break from cooking. One of his brothers had started a landscaping business in Moreno Valley, so he headed for California.

“I had never been to California,” he says, “so I went. I worked there for about a year, but I got really tired of pulling weeds in 110-degree heat, so I started working as a cook in a few places.”

Phillips’ career has taken him from San Bernardino to Solana Beach to Garden Grove, and finally to the Coachella Valley. He’s worked at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, Casey’s, Ramada Inns, Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, La Quinta Cliff House, Touché in Rancho Mirage, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, among others places. He has been a head chef as well as a food and beverage manager for 39 years.

“When I worked with Ramada Inns, I had to take 197 hours of education courses in hospitality, including management of both the front and back of the house,” Phillips said. “One of the things I learned is that getting to be head chef and food and beverage manager too often means working longer hours but not getting paid for both positions.”

Phillips said he has seen a lot of Coachella Valley restaurants come and go. “Everyone with a little money thinks they can open a restaurant. They don’t realize the overhead costs, taxes and fees, and that you just can’t keep adding things to the menu.”

His work as a chef is how Phillips met his wife, Caroline. “I was working at a hotel in San Bernardino, and she used to come to get my famous ribs,” he said. “One night, we were out of ribs, and she asked to speak to the chef.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Phillips has a stepson, and he and Caroline have a daughter.

In his 40s, Phillips thought he needed glasses and went to see an eye doctor, who sent him to a retina specialist after diagnosing the “wet” type of macular degeneration in both of his eyes. “Dry” macular is slow-progressing, and can often be controlled with diminishing progression over time. “Wet” macular is fast-moving and treated with injections directly into the eye.

“I’ve had 33 injections already,” Phillips said, “and I have so much scar tissue now that they probably won’t be able to give me shots anymore. I have some peripheral vision in my right eye, but my left eye is pretty well gone. The first time they gave me one of the shots, I thought the first shot to numb the area was bad enough. Now they’ve developed a numbing agent that makes it a lot easier.”

Phillips walks with a white red-tipped cane, has a computer with special devices, and proudly says he “can do anything that anybody else can do.”

Although Phillips has been volunteering at the Braille Institute for the past few years, he was originally reluctant to go there at all.

“I think a lot of people don’t take advantage of what Braille offers, because they figure if they attend, they’ll just learn how to read in Braille,” he says. “It’s so much more than that.”

Phillips not only teaches cooking classes at the Braille Institute; he caters holiday meals and special events for up to 100 people. He also teaches a class in history/philosophy asking what he calls “big questions.”

“People need to know there is so much here that they can do and learn—piano, computers, agriculture, cooking and classes in so many other subjects,” he says. “It’s about learning life skills and sensory awareness. I have one student who is totally blind, and I make him do a lot of the work, because he has ambition. There are a lot of people who just want to sit back and feel sorry for themselves.

“My wish is to see my daughter married and to have grandchildren before I totally lose my sight. I’m fortunate. There are some people who’ve never seen in their whole life.”

What advice does Phillips have? “Never give up. There’s always something more to come.”

With an attitude like that, John Phillips could make me enjoy cooking.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

In his mid-70s, my late husband, a professional writer and avid reader, was diagnosed with macular degeneration. He had what is known as the “dry” type, which is progressive and can take many years to fully obstruct one’s vision. (There is also a “wet” type, which is fast-moving and can lead to blindness, but it can be reversed somewhat with a shot into the eye if caught quickly.) He eventually needed a magnifying glass to read the daily paper and had to give up driving after dark.

For several years, I’ve had those tiny black dots floating across my vision that seem to afflict everyone of a certain age, and I recently developed a “floater” in my right eye that is like a gauzy haze. Although it has been diagnosed as temporary, it is compromising my eyesight.

All of this became particularly pertinent when a friend who leads a class at the Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage asked if I could substitute for him while he was out of town. The class is a discussion group focusing on current events and politics. I was reminded of a time in my early 20s when I took a part-time job reading to a blind college student twice a week; the satisfaction that job brought me made me want to recapture that feeling of helping someone who couldn’t see. Of course, I said yes.

I discovered that La Quinta resident John Billings, a man I met a couple of years ago when we were both taking college classes, is the student adviser at the Braille Institute. Renewing his acquaintance led me to a far greater understanding of sight issues than I could have imagined.

Billings, 57, has always worked in human services. Originally from Long Beach, he moved to the desert about 14 years ago.

“My mom had died, and I was ready to move on,” he says. “One day, I saw a small ad for volunteers to help out at Braille. I called and got in within a week. I honestly believe everything happens for a reason, and my seeing that ad was one of those meant-to-be things.”

After volunteering for 2 1/2 years, Billings has now been a staff member for more than eight years. His job includes interviewing every student who comes to Braille for support and assistance. “We don’t call them ‘clients’,” says Billings, “because that sounds so clinical. I get to meet everyone and find out about their background, their family and their living situation, and to assess and refer them for whatever support services they might need. The first priority is to help people be able to live as independently as possible.”

My first lesson at Braille was to recognize the range of conditions with which the students live. The discussion group I led included some individuals who were “legally blind,” meaning their vision is 20/200 or worse in both eyes, and others who were only “vision-impaired.”

“There are a wide variety of degrees of sight,” says Billings. “Some see only shadow and light, while others merely need brighter or more strategically placed lights, reading glasses, magnifiers or devices that can help them use their computers and be able to access online resources. We can order specialized devices, and some are recycled back to be made available to those who cannot afford to purchase them. We also have trained specialists who can help people understand what their current status is and what to expect. Often, these conditions are so gradual that people don’t even realize what’s happening.”

One of Braille’s most important services is instruction in independent living skills: how to identify money, closet organization, cooking, eating techniques, exercise and balance, shopping skills, sensory awareness, what students’ rights are, and how to access resources in the community. The center offers classes in dancing, memory improvement games, classic movies, guitar and piano lessons, and peer-support groups.

“Our students range in age from 18 to over 100,” says Billings. “We have anywhere from 250 to 300 people a week coming through. Maybe the most important thing we offer is the opportunity for people from every background to come together with a sense of camaraderie and community. Without Braille Institute, that might never happen for most of our students.”

Braille also has a “mobile solutions van” that goes out into the various communities served—in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties—to assist people who live in outlying areas and/or cannot come into the Rancho Mirage facility.

Braille offers access to books on tape, and offers programs in schools to assist with individualized education plans for students who are vision challenged. Classes are also available to learn to read using the six-dot Braille cell.

The Braille Institute has only a small paid staff; 90 percent of those assisting students are volunteers.

“We need people to host discussion groups, teach hobbies like knitting and do limited administrative work. We have a craft fair at holiday time and art projects that people cannot believe were done by individuals with limited sight,” Billings says. “For some, these projects allow them to express images they can only recall, and you would never believe they were done by people who cannot see.”

The Braille Institute is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and all services are free. The center, located at 70251 Ramon Road, gets no government funding other than books on tape, which are funded through the Library of Congress and mailed free of charge. Otherwise, all support is through donations. Call 760-321-1111 for more information.

As always, when we volunteer, we tend to get more than we give, and we usually learn more than we could ever teach.

“I’ve learned how to ‘see’ everything differently,” Billings says. “I have the best job!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Felice Chiapperini, a manager and field-services coordinator for the Braille Institute, doesn’t think his organization gets the publicity it needs.

“We’re the best-kept secret in the Coachella Valley,” he said.

The Rancho Mirage location is one of five Braille Institute centers in California. The organization was founded in 1919 by J. Robert Atkinson after he lost his sight. Atkinson learned to read Braille and managed to transcribe 250 books.

“We like to say that we offer services to those with low-vision to no-vision, and everybody in between,” Chiapperini said. “A lot of people have misunderstandings about who we serve, and our name is a bit misleading. ‘Braille Institute’ invokes in people’s minds images of people who are totally blind—images of Helen Keller, and things like that. While we do serve that community, the majority of the people we serve fall into the category of low-vision.”

Who qualifies as low-vision?

“Anyone who has been diagnosed with any type of degenerative eye condition to where corrective lenses will no longer work,” he answered. “That means the person has been to their doctor or eye doctor; they are given the strongest glasses that they make, and they still can’t see their face or the words on a page. We can provide those people the tools, the training and the adaptive devices they need so that they can continue to do whatever it is they want to do, despite the vision loss.”

How many people are visually impaired in the region?

“From this center, we serve the Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties,” Chiapperini said. “In that three-county radius, the census says there are some 80,000-plus visually impaired people. That’s a huge number, and it’s equal to the city population of Indio. We only see about 4,000 to 5,000 of those people on an annual basis.”

Chiapperini said the institute started primarily as a Braille printing press and Braille lending library. “We still are a Braille press and Braille lending library, but nowadays, less than 10 percent of visually impaired people can read Braille. The majority of our clients, 90 percent, can’t read Braille.”

I was a bit taken back by that piece of information.

“Years ago, it was 50 percent,” Chiapperini said. “Back in the 1960s, the federal government mandated that students with physical disabilities be brought into the mainstream education system. Prior to that, there were dedicated schools for the blind and dedicated schools for the deaf. When the students were brought into the mainstream schools, (teachers) weren’t equipped to teach them Braille. … What did they do? They taught them audio. It was at the time when audio and cassette learning was being introduced.”

Chiapperini also shared another reason why a lot of visually impaired adults don’t know Braille. “Many of the people who become visually impaired today become visually impaired as older adults, and it’s not feasible to teach older adults Braille—the reason being is because as we grow older, we lose sensitivity in our fingertips. It becomes impractical.”

Chiapperini said the Braille Institute is leading a campaign to reintroduce Braille into the learning system. The organization also works to help all visually impaired people live independent lives—even though many people in need at first resist help.

“Going to senior health fairs or to assisted-living facilities, the ladies shuffle up to me and say, ‘Braille Institute? I don’t need your services, and I’m not blind!’ One of the frustrating things is a lot of older people won’t self-identify as having vision loss because of vanity and fear. They don’t want to admit they have as much vision loss as they do, because then the DMV will take away their license. … It’s frustrating for us, because we can provide them the tools to make their lives much more enjoyable and easier, if only they would understand. … Inevitably, they take a few classes, and we give them some adaptive devices, and they make a remarkable turnaround, because there’s a sense of independence coming back.”

What services does the Braille Institute provide?

“Think of us as a community college for the visually impaired,” he said. “This is a place where they can come and take classes. We offer two types of courses. One is the core-skills class; that’s where you learn the basics—cooking, dressing yourself and handling money. The second are enrichment classes, where you can take art classes, photography classes, arts and crafts, horticulture and all sorts of things.”

Chiapperini noted that advances in technology have changed the ways in which visually impaired people live and interact

“You can be totally blind and use a smartphone as well as you or I use it,” Chiapperini said. “There are more than 200 applications for visually impaired people that are free or 99 cents. (Handling) money is always an issue for visually impaired people, so we teach people how to fold their money according to the denominations so they know what they have in their wallet. … There’s an app out there called EyeNote that works through the camera and tells you how much money you have. There are apps that recognize color as well.”

Chiapperini showed me a device that measures liquid in a cup and beeps once the cup is filled to the appropriate level.

“When someone has macular degeneration, they have a hard time distinguishing color and depth. If they were in the kitchen, and they had a white cup, and they were going to pour milk into this cup, it would be very challenging,” he said.

The Braille Institute’s Rancho Mirage Center is located at 70251 Ramon Road, in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call 760-321-1111, or visit www.brailleinstitute.org/ranchomirage.html.

Published in Features