Reading service that gives voice to the printed word expanding into Genesee County

Paul Jerge was born blind, but that hasn’t altered his perspective.

Although he is visually impaired, the 69-year-old enjoys spending time with family, rooting for the Buffalo Bills and checking out the latest news from his local paper. He just sees in a different way, he says.

“I follow sports, but I like to read the actual articles, and watch games on TV. I consider it reading … I always say ‘watch’ because that’s what everyone else is doing,” Jerge said to The Batavian. “I’m listening to something every day. I like to support it. The volunteers give of their time and I really appreciate that.”

In the last few months, Jerge, a 1972 graduate of the State School for the Blind in Batavia, has added the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service to his repertoire as a way to enhance his pool of printed materials. He does everything on his smartphone, including connecting to the online reading service for some news, podcasts, magazine or book recitations.

Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service has “given voice to the printed word” since 1987. The nonprofit supplies 100 volunteer readers — a number expected to keep growing — for several areas throughout Western New York. Staff is planning to expand into the Southern Tier and small cities including Batavia, Mark Robinson said.

A former executive director for other agencies in the Buffalo area, Robinson wanted t to slow down a bit, he said. He discovered the radio reading organization two months ago.

“I really wanted to be part of this; it really is amazing,” he said. “We’ll have boots on the ground in Genesee County very soon.”

There are 150,000 potential listeners who are not able to access the service in this area, he said. So far, the service has covered western regions, including Erie County. There are 500 receivers (provided free of charge) out in those communities for listeners, while the online listeners are a majority of the service’s consumer base, he said. There are apps for smartphones, an online website and access through other devices, including Amazon Echo and Google Home.

People just like Paul Jerge can access a world of printed materials with just a click or a voice command on a smart device. Within a 24-hour daily schedule, volunteers read the news, perhaps something from the Wall Street Journal, USA Todaya best-selling book, the Buffalo Bills Digest and from several other sources. One the most popular readings isn’t an article at all, Robinson said.

“They like the Sunday shopping ads,” he said. “They could be disabled veterans, were born blind, lost their sight due to disease or injury. Anyone can access it; as of two years ago, anyone in the world can. We’re working on expanding the service into Rochester and the Genesee Valley.”

Although anyone can access and listen, volunteers are still vital to the program, he said. They are needed to read the news that is local to the area in addition to those John Grisham novels and the like.

Robert Sikorski, a Buffalo lawyer, founded the organization in March 1987. Thanks to a federal law on the books allowing printed materials to be read for the purpose of enriching the lives of the blind or sight-impaired without copyright infringements, the reading service just surpassed its 35 year anniversary. It now boasts having tallied more than 250,000 hours of reading.

Many volunteers read without leaving their homes, or it can be done at the service’s home base studio in Cheektowaga. All that’s required, Robinson said, is to read out loud and a desire to help. Reading usually takes a couple of hours per week. The service is funded by grants and donations, and listeners have often become strong financial supporters as well, he said.

Robinson is seeking people interested in forming a committee in Genesee County. For more information about that or obtaining a free reading radio, becoming a volunteer and/or donor, go to: www.nfradioreading.org or call (716) 821-5555.

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