Joe and Deb Buczkowski used to volunteer for the blind. (Family photo)
Things are so bad in Michigan that even the volunteers are getting laid off.
The 165 kind souls who put textbooks on CDs in Troy for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) were told this week that their services -- annual cost, zero -- are no longer required.
Appropriately enough for these perilous times, they're victims of the economy and advancing technology.
At least their volunteer hours didn't get outsourced to India. Better yet, another charity already stands eager to meet a corps of volunteer voices with experience in smoothly reading aloud. And chances are it's willing to quadruple what RFB&D was paying, on the theory that four times zilch is still well within its budget.
"We have a lot of volunteers who are retirees. This was their life," says Joe Buczkowski of Rochester, who'd spent nine years of Tuesday nights reading management and leadership books into a microphone. "Some of them put in as many hours as a regular person puts in on their job."
The Michigan unit of RFB&D is scheduled to shut the doors April 22. It's one of several around the country whose services are no longer desired.
The letter to Buczkowski and friends from local chairman Paul Edie blames a loss of corporate sponsorship in the state and "a major shift in technology" involving "high-quality simulated voices."
"There was a lot of surprise, a lot of disappointment," says Buczkowski in his high-quality real voice. He's 55, a downsized I.T. manager who met his future wife when some volunteers went across the street to Camp Ticonderoga after their shift.
Befitting her degree, Deb Buczkowski specialized in chemistry books. Other readers might have focused on medicine, law or engineering. A few times a year, some users of the books they recorded would show up to say thanks. "They'd tell us, 'I got through high school and I'm in college because of what you do,' " Joe Buczkowski says.
The work was rewarding enough that the gang would like to stay together. Not that Buczkowski has polled everyone, all 164 other readers and knob-twiddlers, but "we've wondered if anyplace else could use a group of volunteers."
"Could we band up and go around to nursing homes and hospitals, reading to people who can't hold up the materials for themselves?" he asks. "We didn't know if there might be some other organizations who'd like to grab a group of already trained volunteers and let them have at it."
WDET-FM to the rescue
Why, yes, says Kim Walsh, there might just be.
Since 1993, she's been the director of the Detroit Radio Information Service at WDET-FM (101.9), the public radio station. Detroit Radio provides 24-hour-a-day programming, via closed-circuit receivers, read to people who can't see or can't hold a book or newspaper.
"I am so stunned. I can't believe this," she says of the closing. With her own corps of 140 volunteers providing more than 5,000 hours per year, she probably can't accommodate the entire RFB&D cast, "but we always have turnover. We have several openings right now."
Her readers are more conversational, and the work isn't quite so technical. Popular shows include The Detroit News and the grocery store ads.
Buczkowski says it sounds like a perfect fit, and it's nice to know reading is still a valued skill.
With his experience, he could probably even hold out for 10 times what he was making before, but chances are he won't.
More Neal Rubin
- Macomb-bred dentist Ryan Shinska heeds a call to serve poor in Uganda
- Dessert and more at Opa! Fest -- and a century-old message in the St. Clair River
- Homeless until the end, familiar figure gets help with final resting place
- Shower gifts for future kings and queens
- No way, Van Gogh stays in Detroit
- Mammoth sight on Middlebelt becomes standing attraction
- At Harbor Town Cleaners, the mayoral election hangs on only two issues