The LightHouse of San Francisco Buys Building after $125 Million Bequest

Date Posted: 01/13/2016

In the fall of 2015, San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired received an $125 million gift from a reclusive Seattle businessman, an amount that represented more than 15 times the annual budget of the nonprofit organization. Donald Sirkin, who had not previously donated to nor had received services from the LightHouse while he was alive, "left almost his entire estate to the LightHouse, with no explanation," according to an article by National Public Radio (NPR). "It's one of those experiences where time stands still, where you know that every little bit of what you're experiencing will be engraved in your memory," Bryan Bashin, chief executive officer of the LightHouse, told NPR. "This is the moment that everything is going to change."

The LightHouse, which provides skills training, psychological services, employment counseling, fitness partnerships, and community services for people who are blind, deafblind, or have low vision, was just beginning its annual strategic planning process in November 2015 when it received the money bequeathed by Mr. Sirkin. The money was immediately put to use to fulfill an initiative begun in 2007 to move the LightHouse headquarters from a converted garage that was built in 1906 to a larger building that could accommodate more services. In early January 2016, Mr. Bashin announced the fulfillment of that dream: "On December 9th the LightHouse took perhaps the biggest leap in our 114-year history. . . ," Mr. Bashin wrote in a letter to supporters that told of the purchase of an 11-story building, 1155 Market Street, in the Mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco, which is "henceforth to be known as 'the LightHouse Building.'"

The new facility will triple the size of the organization's previous headquarters, allowing more room for its low vision clinic, classrooms, braille and tactile graphics production, and including dedicated rooms for counseling, crafts, fitness, teleconferences, and science education. New dormitory facilities will be added that will allow 29 students to stay overnight and "lengthen and intensify their training." For the first time, the LightHouse will have a teaching kitchen. The one in the new facility is designed to accommodate up to 12 students for simultaneous instruction in nonvisual cooking techniques. A Volunteer Center will include six private reading or computing rooms in which individuals who are blind can meet with volunteers for help with tasks such as online shopping or assistance with tax forms. In addition, the new facility will feature advanced audio and video technology for webcasts and podcasts and an expanded retail store filled with products for people who are blind. Construction of the new space is expected to conclude in March 2016, and a grand opening celebration is anticipated for June 2016.

Mr. Bashin also touched on the organization's plans for the distant future by explaining that nearly two-thirds of the new building is under long-term rental contract to the City of San Francisco. "In the years and decades to come, the LightHouse will . . . have the option to expand into any of the eight floors the City now uses. That means that the LightHouse will never have to move again, but instead be able to integrate new services, programs and partnerships right alongside our bustling headquarters, giving us enviable program flexibility deep into the future." For more information, contact: LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 214 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102; phone: 415-431-1481; e-mail: info@lighthouse-sf.org; website: http://lighthouse-sf.org. [Information for this piece was taken from the NPR article, "When A Stranger Leaves You $125 Million," by Amy Standen.]

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