LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired Receives $125 Million

LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired Receives $125 Million

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco has received a $125 million bequest from Seattle businessman Donald Sirkin, KQED reports.

Sirkin, who died in May 2014 at the age of 86, had never donated to LightHouse or used its services, yet he left nearly his entire estate to the organization, including his private residence, with no explanation. Notified of the bequest last year, LightHouse has initiated a strategic planning process to decide how to spend the $125 million, which is more than fifteen times its annual budget and, according to CEO and executive director Bryan Bashin, is the largest bequest ever made to a blindness organization. One  project — which had been in the works long before the Sirkin bequest — is a new headquarters in San Francisco with expanded facilities, including a dormitory where blind people can stay while they receive training in blind tech, cane navigation, and other necessary skills. Another idea is a MacArthur "Genius" type award for blind people who do extraordinary things — for example, travel around the world independently or invent a game-changing tool that improves accessibility for the blind.

Born in New York City, Sirkin founded a building permit reporting service, a weekly newspaper for contractors, and an insurance company, among other businesses, in Seattle. At the time of his death, he was estranged from his family and, as Bashin and LightHouse development director Jennifer Sachs discovered when they visited his house, had lost his eyesight but had hidden the fact, becoming more and more reclusive. Sirkin's will left $250,000 each to his son and daughter; Anna Pascua, his daughter, is suing the estate and, if she wins, could receive a small percentage of what would otherwise go to the organization.

Bashin, who has made it his life's mission to help other blind people overcome their shame and obstacles to independence and dignity through skills and job training and other services, suggests that if Sirkin could not "come out of the closet" about his blindness to seek help, at least his bequest will help others do so.

"When you get right down to it," he said, "the Sirkin bequest is about feeling like we can dream and have options and be proud of who we are."

Judy Campbell, Amy Standen. "When a Stranger Gives You $125 Million." KQED Podcast 11/03/2015.