Christian Record Services for the Blind President Larry Pitcher is enthusiastic about a young Nebraska teen’s efforts to send 13 blind children to summer camp this year.
After Christian Philson raised more than $4,500 toward his goal at a local pancake breakfast, the legendary Harlem Globetrotters named the 13-year-old an honorary Ambassador of Goodwill. Autographed memorabilia from the team for a fundraising raffle will further benefit his project.
Pitcher says what Philson is doing on a small scale illustrates what the Nebraska-based charity stands for – Christian ministry anchored in the community.
Established by the Adventist Church in 1899, Christian Record Services for the Blind offers a library of Braille, large print publications and audio recordings to a potential audience of 39 million blind and low sight people in United States. The ministry also operates a system of camps for blind children across North America.
At the helm of Christian Record since 1995, Pitcher has steered the ministry toward efficiency. He oversaw cutbacks ahead of the 2008 economic downturn, trimming Christian Record’s annual budget to $4.2 million, down from $6.1 million. The tighter focus, he says, is kindling growth and drawing a new brand of service-minded employees to the ministry.
Most recently, Christian Record began transferring its library from audio cassette to digital cartridge technology used by the U.S. Library of Congress. The ministry has ambitious plans to put digital players stocked with encouraging, relevant content in the hands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars who have suffered eye damage in the line of duty.
Pitcher spoke with ANN ahead of the ministry’s April 14 annual offering. The Chicago native discussed the growing Missionaries to the Blind program and the challenges involved in offering camps to the blind. Excerpts:
Adventist News Network: What will this coming Saturday’s offering fund?
Larry Pitcher: Donations from church members will go toward Seventh-day Adventist-specific publications. For example, we have the New Believer Bible study guides we’re preparing for the North American Division. They’re brand new. These are Sabbath School lessons designed for people who’ve just been baptized. The offering will also help support a new audio version of The Great Hope – the condensation of The Great Controversy [by church co-founder Ellen G. White]. In terms of our funding, about 75 percent of our annual budget comes from individual and corporate donors outside of the church. So the money that does come from the church, we want to use for Seventh-day Adventist-specific projects. This way, we can assure the Baptist or Catholic donor that their money is going toward the general Christian aspect of our ministry.
ANN: Is it difficult to maintain a distinctly Adventist ministry when so much of your funding comes from outside the church?
Pitcher: It is hard to target, but what we do is divide our mission work. If a blind person wants to know about Seventh-day Adventists, we have that material. We also offer general Christian material designed to encourage and inspire and to inform. A third category is just good, clean Christian reading. You don’t have to worry about sex and violence. We also have health-related publications, like Dynamic Living by Dr. Hans Diehl. That’s not specifically Seventh-day Adventist. And the same is true with some of our other material that has to do with issues of, say, marital conflict or raising children. In terms of people we serve with our publications, only 12 percent of our nearly 20,000 subscribers are Seventh-day Adventists. So we’re missionary minded. We’re Seventh-day Adventists facing the Christian and non-Christian communities. We’re a bridge.
ANN: Christian Record has recently expanded its Missionaries to the Blind ministry. What’s the idea behind this program?
Pitcher: We started Missionaries to the Blind about seven years ago to connect with the hundreds of thousands of blind people who receive Christian Record publication or who have attended our camps. We train church members to befriend people who are receiving our publications. After these Missionaries to the Blind volunteers are screened and trained, they get two or three names to contact, and they simply strike up a conversation. They offer more resources and create a friendship. Maybe the person needs transportation help. Maybe they’re lonely and want someone to talk to. We encourage the missionaries to invite the blind to church functions, like a picnic, a concert or a holiday event. Quite a few people began visiting church regularly through this program, and of those, we’ve had baptisms. Currently, we have 400 volunteers in the U.S. visiting about 1,100 people. We also serve a few hundred clients In India. In Egypt, there are a few more hundred. Australia, too.
ANN: To what degree are Adventists attuned to the needs of the visually impaired community?
Pitcher: Few people are actually very acquainted with Christian Record Services for the Blind. They’ve heard of it, but they’re not acquainted with it like they are with Voice of Prophecy, or It Is Written. It’s more like, ‘Well, I know what that is, but it’s for the blind.” So our purpose when we go to the churches is to share the vast missionary work that we’re doing with the Braille publications, the large print, the audio, the website, the lending library, the camps for the blind and the Missionaries to the Blind. And then I ask people to join the Missionaries to the Blind, be part of our task force of volunteers.
ANN: Ahead of the economic downturn, Christian Record cut back the National Camps for Blind Children from 24 to 10 per year. You’re back up to 11 camps this summer. What factors are still influencing camp attendance?
Pitcher: Two things have impacted us, not the least of which are new privacy issues. You can’t get a list of blind people on the Internet, nor can you get a list of blind people from most of the agencies that serve the blind anymore. We used to be able to go to schools of the blind. But many states have mainstreamed blind students into public schools. So now you’ve got to find them individually and connect with them, which is time consuming and expensive. Secondly, if they’re a minor, you have to convince the individual of low vision or blindness, plus the parents. Not all parents, believe it or not, are willing to let their kids go off to some camp they don’t know anything about. So parents want to investigate, they want to see the camp in action and make sure everything’s safe. The Seventh-day Adventist camps that we choose are accredited by both the American Camping Association and the Adventist Association of Camping Professionals.
ANN: What has changed at Christian Record over the past decade?
Pitcher: The biggest change is that we’ve become more technologically savvy to improve our services to the blind while reducing costs. I’ve also seen an improvement in the quality of people who want to serve in this ministry. People who are professional, dedicated, ministry-loving, wanting to serve, wanting to help people. These are people who could work somewhere else and make more money at less effort, but we do this because we’re committed to the ministry. Most of our department heads all have their master’s degrees. They don’t have to work here. But when people want to do things for the Lord, and they want to impact people’s lives, this is one way they can do it. And they see the difference.
ANN: What does Christian Record offer that isn’t available anywhere else?
Pitcher: Our vision statement is simple: We help the blind see Jesus. It is by seeing Jesus that hope and health and healing comes to the individual. As people join our ministry they realize that we are enabling people to independently experience Jesus Christ though our publications, through our Missionaries to the Blind and through our camps. This ministry is vital because Jesus said go into all the world and we have here in the U.S., for example, 39 million people with major vision problems, from cataracts, to RP [Retinitis pigmentosa], to detached retina, to total blindness. There’s about 10 major causes of blindness. But 39 million people is a lot of people. And it’s growing as the population ages.
-- Find out more about Christian Record Services for the Blind at christianrecord.org.