“Don’t focus on what you can’t do, but on what you can continue to do,” is what Executive Director Michael Lazarovits tells those who visit the Braille Institute Santa Barbara. The mission of the nonprofit organization is to eliminate barriers to a fulfilling life caused by blindness and severe sight loss. “We teach people how to use a knife differently,” Michael elaborates. “We teach them how to cook differently.”
Lazarovits, who exudes tranquility and boundless optimism, has worked for the Braille Institute since 1989. Having started at the Los Angeles chapter, he transferred to working in our city twenty-two years ago and has been Executive Director at the Braille Institute SB for 15 years. 75% to 80% of people who come to the Institute suffer from macular degeneration. The Institute offers free programs that instruct in digital literacy, how to get around town, daily living skills, yoga, and more. Funds for their services are raised primarily from private donations. They decline to receive federal funding because of the restrictions that come with it. “We prefer to determine where our needs are,” Michael says. “We prefer to be mission driven rather than to be donor driven.”
“Ever since I was in high school, I knew I wanted to help people,” Michael shares with me. “But I didn’t understand exactly what I was going to do.” First he became a Lay Minister and worked with low-income teenagers for ten years providing programs and organizing retreats. “When I was working with the kids I wasn’t as effective with them as I could have been,” he reflects. “And that’s when I realized I needed more education.” In 1982 he started to study part time and graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1989 with a BA in Psychology – followed by a Master’s degree in Social Work from Cal State Long Beach in 1992. It was while getting his graduate degree that he saw an ad for the Braille Institute Los Angeles. They were looking for a program manager. In 1992, two important things happened, he married his Panamanian wife who worked at the library of the Institute – and the position for assistant director at the Braille Institute Santa Barbara opened up.
Michael, who confesses he is a “bit of a fitness freak,” is proud of the impact the Braille Institute has on people. “I see people continuing with their lives,” he says. “And the beautiful thing is that they don’t rely on us or anyone else. They do it all on their own. We simply give them the tools.”
Michael answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Who do you most admire?
My daughters. Unlike me when I was their age, they approach life with no boundaries, nor do they feel any restrictions. For example, my oldest is in her third year studying Physics at the University of Chicago, a field traditionally dominated by men.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I have been told that I constantly repeat myself. However, at times this is by design, as I have found that those items that I repeat in a conversation are usually most remembered after the conversation.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Abraham Lincoln. Presidents before him and after avoided addressing the “slavery” issue. The short term consequences he and the country endured for Lincoln doing what he knew was right were devastating. In the long run, he moved the country forward. I also feel that a lot of the divisiveness that we are currently experiencing would be much less if he hadn’t been assassinated.
What do you like most about your job?
Playing a role in helping individuals and their families overcome the challenges that sight loss can bring. It is also inspiring to work with very dedicated and committed staff members and volunteers.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My specific idea of perfect happiness is spending time with my wife and daughters; my general idea of perfect happiness is going out of my way to do for others without expecting anything in return
What is your greatest fear?
I avoid any thoughts of fear. It’s too scary to think about.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Watching football uninterrupted.
What is your current state of mind?
This can change; currently optimistic and hopeful.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I like those who are honest and respectful and who think beyond what others may say, but I also like people who are witty, with a good sense of humor.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Those who have no regard for themselves or others around them and those lacking a sense of humor.
What do you most value in friends?
Integrity, compassion, understanding, and humor.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Openness, patience. (These are what I constantly strive for, even though I may not always succeed.)
Which talent would you most like to have?
To play a musical instrument.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be taller.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being a father
Where would you most like to live?
I am perfectly content living where I am. What matters more has to do with who I am living with.
What is your most treasured possession?
Items from my father, who passed in 1976. My wedding ring.
Who makes you laugh the most?
George Carlin, Louie CK.
What is your motto?
“It’s not the end of the world” AND “If it doesn’t kill you it will only make you stronger.”
On what occasion do you lie?
To avoid hurting another. However, I have discovered that I am not a very good liar, which is why I may avoid responding to an issue if I feel I need to lie.