Portland Fire Museum outing touches the lives of the blind

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PORTLAND — Without the use of sight, the blind must rely on other senses, particularly their sense of touch, to interpret the world around them.

That’s why it’s so valuable when cultural organizations such as the Portland Fire Museum can offer tours that include an opportunity to touch the various exhibits.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind had the opportunity Monday to visit the Spring Street museum, which includes a variety of firefighting memorabilia.

From feeling the leather hoses once used to fight fires, to touching the metal wheels on the horse-drawn fire cartsm to ringing the fire bell, the group received a hands-on lesson in what was like to fight fires in the early days of organized fire departments.

Walter Woitacek, president of the local federation chapter, said the fire museum is one of the few such places the group can visit because there’s no restriction on touching the artifacts on display.

Woitacek has been blind since the age of 5, when he lost his sight in a childhood accident. He uses a cane to navigate and hasn’t let being blind be a barrier to achieving his dreams.

Woitacek is now retired, but spent nearly 50 years as a minister in the United Methodist Church, including several postings in northern Maine. In 2009 he and his wife moved to Portland to be closer to family.

In addition to starting the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, Woitacek is also a member of the board at The Iris Network, a Portland-based nonprofit working to help the blind and visually impaired achieve independence and community integration.

Most of the chapter members live at the Iris Park Apartments on Park Avenue, which is operated by the Portland Housing Authority and provides low-income housing designed specifically for people with visual impairment or blindness.

Woitacek said he hopes as more people learn about the group, they will become interested in joining.

“We invite anyone to attend our meetings,” he said. Those wishing to know more should contact Woitacek at 805-1186. In addition to serving people whose sight is impaired, he’s also hoping to start a dual sensory group for those who are both blind and deaf.

Woitacek said outings like the one to the fire museum are important because it gives people the ability to “experience and be in touch with the world.”

“Life can be very limiting for people who don’t have the opportunity to get around for themselves,” he said.

Randy Bellavance and his wife, Sarah, have both been blind since birth and joined the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind nearly a year ago.

Sarah Bellavance said getting the chance to visit the fire museum gives group members “a wonderful sense of independence” and a “wonderful opportunity” to interact with the larger world.

“Otherwise we’d just be sitting at home doing nothing,” she said.

Randy Bellavance said visiting the museum was also a chance “to better understand the community we live in. It gives us a better idea of Portland’s history.”

The Bellavances met at a school for the blind in Boston; Sarah joked that she married Randy so she could live near the ocean, eliciting a chuckle from her husband.

Jaime Burns, the recreation coordinator at the Iris Park Apartments, accompanied the group to the fire museum. She said having a chance to be out and about “is a huge part of life, no matter who you are.”

She agreed that offering the blind visitors the ability to touch the artifacts on display brought Portland’s firefighting past straight to their fingertips.

“To a sighted person, seeing the leather hose might not mean much,” Burns said, but “to be able to touch it and really understand what is was used for” is important for the blind.

The fire museum is operated by the Portland Veteran Firemen’s Association, and is usually open during every First Friday art walk. Its mission is “Firefighters, preserving their past.”

Burns said special outings like the visit to the fire museum are truly appreciated. Taking the blind group there provides “a sense of community and social interaction,” she said. “It’s really nice of them to offer this opportunity.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Mike Daicy, left, a volunteer at the Portland Fire Museum, leads a tour for the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind Monday, June 5. Among the visitors were Sarah and Randy Bellavance, who got a chance to run their hands over a vintage leather fire hose.

Memorabilia on a wall at the Portland Fire Museum.

The Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street is open during every First Friday art walk. It had a special opening Monday for the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.