A young boy had just finished watching a movie about Helen Keller with his parents when his mother asked him if he knew anyone who is blind.

He said, “No.”

“But you go to school with blind children,” she reminded him.

“No I don’t,” he said.

“We are all the same.”

Miami Lion Virginia Jacko loves to share this story about one of their pre-kindergarten students at the Learning Center for Children in the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“When it comes down to it,” says Jacko, “that’s what it’s all about. We are all the same.”

Jacko, the president and CEO of the Lion-supported Lighthouse in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, spearheaded the school, the country’s first known toddler and pre-kindergarten program that is a 50-50 mix of sighted and visually impaired students.

The Learning Center is now halfway through its third academic year and three years into a four-year study being conducted by the University of Miami to evaluate the impact of inclusion on the very young.

“The goal is for total immersion,” says Jacko. “For me, as a newly blind adult, I found that too often the blind only hung around the blind, and often the sighted did not know how to interact with the blind.”

She hopes their school will help to change that.

In these classrooms for toddlers and pre-kindergarteners, Florida-certified early childhood teachers work alongside Florida-certified teachers for the visually impaired. Sighted and visually impaired children play and learn side-by-side, every toy, book, cubby, desk, and chair labelled in both print and braille.

“There’s environmental print all around for children who are sighted,” says Isabel Chica, director of children’s programs. “Here we have also created a braille environment.”

"Parents of sighted children have thanked the school for helping them raise an empathetic child."

While all of the children are exposed to braille, more direct instruction in braille depends on the child, she says. Any child, sighted or visually impaired, who wants to explore braille, can, but the focus is not on teaching everyone braille. It’s on giving the children what they need to be successful.

“We want to develop relationships early on for children,” says Chica. “We want the visually impaired to be able to be mainstreamed so they grow, and we want their sighted peers to work comfortably alongside them, and not only have an understanding of what visually impaired means, but to know that they [the visually impaired] are just as capable."

“We want to level the playing field.”

“If we’re telling a story, the children can access that in braille, in regular print, and in large print,” explains Jacko.

Anel Achemendia’s daughter, Mia Pena, was in the center’s blind babies program at age 1, and now at age 3 she attends the 50-50 toddler program Monday through Friday.

Mia was born blind in her right eye and with low vision in her left. “The doctor recommended we visit the Lighthouse, and honestly it was life changing,” says Achemendia. “I cannot put into words how much I appreciate that this place exists, or how thankful I am for what they do for our daughter."

“The 50-50 program, for me that’s as close to reality as you can get. That’s just how real life is. Mia is not going to be in an environment of all visually impaired people forever. She is going to be in the real world with people who are sighted.”

In school, Mia has made friends with both visually impaired and sighted children, and her mother expects that in a few years she will attend a Miami-Dade County public school in the neighborhood, just like her older sister, Delilah Arias, who is 7.

Delilah is sighted and her parents chose to enroll her in the center for pre-kindergarten on the first year it was open, not knowing she would someday have a visually impaired sister.

Achemendia says the experience has made Delilah more empathetic and understanding of the differences in people. “It also opened her eyes to the fact that you can do so much, even when you have a visual impairment. She is more kind, more patient with her sister,” she says. “She goes to the Lighthouse for summer programs, and it’s good because when you are mainstream you don’t see a lot of visually impaired children.”

According to the University of Miami, many parents report that the 50-50 component has helped their child feel comfortable in diverse social situations at school and with their families outside of school. Visually impaired children who avoided peers began enjoying their peer interaction, holding hands, and playing with others. Parents of sighted children have thanked the school for helping them raise an empathetic child.

“We have a society without much empathy,” says Jacko. “Our children score very high on empathy.”

The Downtown Miami Lions Club and the Rotary Club of Miami jointly founded the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind in 1930. Three years later, the Lions club bought a small bungalow in the Little Havana neighborhood to permanently house the Lighthouse, and in 1946 the club built a large, two-story addition onto the bungalow at a cost of US$480,000 [current dollars].

Over the years, further additions were built as a result of community fundraising so that now the Lighthouse occupies almost a full city block. A parking garage was also added, and in August of 2017, the Learning Center for Children opened with a Matching grant of US$30,000 from LCIF and US$30,000 from the Miami Lions for the construction of an inclusive playground.