For more than 50 years, Lighthouse of Pinellas has been a beacon for the blind and visually impaired of Pinellas County.
These days, that beacon is even brighter, thanks to a retail business that offers gizmos and gadgets to make life easier for those with sight problems.
"In Pinellas County, there are 30,000 people who are legally blind,'' said Bob Schrepfer, 48, owner of Magnifying Solutions Inc. "We have a large number of people who had normal vision throughout their lives, but now are struggling, basically trying to figure out how to live life all over again.''
Magnifying Solutions operates at the entryway of the Lighthouse of Pinellas, a nonprofit organization started by Muriel Watson more than 50 years ago to serve the blind and visually impaired.
The two entities have a joint vision, Schrepfer said. "We keep the visually impaired as independent as possible,'' he said.
When clients of the Lighthouse come in for classes or other services, they can stop at the business, known as the Sight Shoppe by insiders.
The shelves are lined with voice-activated alarm clocks, pot watchers to help monitor boiling water, high-rimmed plates, and egg timers and television channel changers with giant numbers. They also sell higher-priced magnifiers to help with writing, reading, grooming and navigating a room.
But you don't have to be a Lighthouse client to visit, Schrepfer said.
"Many people who come in are elderly, suffering from macular degeneration," he said. "Many are realizing they need to relearn how to go through life.''
Both organizations have benefited from the seven-year relationship, said Dan Mann, president and chief executive officer of Lighthouse of Pinellas.
"People come here looking for help to get past their weakness, and having (Magnifying Solutions) here, with its products, aids us to introduce people to all we offer and what we can do,'' he said.
Prices in the store range from $10 to about $2,300 for video magnifiers like the Acrobat, a three-in-one camera, LCD monitor and magnifier. The Acrobat can go from working as a mirror to a tool to navigate a room.
Schrepfer concedes one drawback to his business is the cost of his merchandise. Health insurers don't typically cover his high-tech magnifiers.
"The next thing I'd like to see is these products more financially available to everyone,'' he said.
In addition to Schrepfer, the business operates with just two other employees, his administrative assistant, Barb Hale, and his store manager and sister, Barbara Valley.
Schrepfer describes his big sister as a teacher who guides customers in determining what would work for their lifestyle.
"You could consider this business almost more home health care instead of an optical business,'' he said.
Valley, 61, left her job as a pediatrician's administrative assistant to join her brother six years ago.
"I joined him because it's interesting work," she said. "When I watch as people look under the magnifiers for the first time, it's wonderful. My favorite moments are getting to watch as people see photos, their grandchildren's faces, for the first time.''