Wichita’s Envision is expanding into a new sphere: research.
The organization – a nonprofit devoted to employing and treating those who are blind or vision-impaired, will unveil a new research institute and fundraising campaign Thursday morning at a news conference.
The institute will be housed on the third floor of Envision’s headquarters at 610 N. Main.
The floor has been empty, except for some random chairs and a drawing of the institute’s proposed floor plan to show visitors. The space in recent years has served only as a place for Envision’s clients to practice martial arts.
But when it is built out, it will be transformed into laboratories, exam and interview rooms, conference and training rooms, and a row of offices for research scientists.
The organization said it needs to raise $3 million to build out the institute.
It has raised $1.5 million so far from big donors in a quiet campaign over the past year. In addition, it has secured a $300,000 challenge grant from the Mabee Foundation.
Now it is turning to the public to raise the remain $1.2 million.
Heather Hogan, Envision’s vice president of foundation and mission services, said Envision officials have a long list of foundations, corporations and individuals that they have approached or will soon approach.
Work on the institute is expected to start in May or June, before all the money is in hand.
“They need space,” she said. “We are at capacity and will start construction as early as we can in the process in an effort to find a place to put them all.”
Research is the obvious next component for Envision, after jobs and medical services, say organization leaders.
“The question is always: How can we help these people become more functional?” Hogan said.
Envision was created in 1933 as an organization to employ the blind and those with low vision. These days its manufacturing operation makes 2.5 million plastic grocery bags a day and 30 million business cards a year, mostly for the U.S. government, at its plant at 2301 S. Water.
Its business operations also include Envision Xpress, which operates office supply stores – called base service centers – at 16 Army, Air Force and Navy installations in 10 states, where some of the products it makes are sold.
In the past few years, the organization has branched out into other products and services, such as reflective dog collars and biodegradable tablecloths. In December, it bought KFTI, a 100,000-watt radio station at 92.3 on FM band, from Journal Broadcast Group, saying it would be a good place to employ Envision clients.
Overall, it employs 440 people, including 150 with vision problems.
And, for about a decade, it has provided clinical services for children and adults with vision problems at its downtown location. Services include exams, occupational and physical therapy, and the customization of devices that aid those with vision issues.
Envision’s leadership said there is plenty of basic research related to vision, but there is relatively little applied research on how best to adapt to blindness or impaired vision.
“We’re not trying to prevent vision loss,” said board member Jon Rosell. “We’re trying to manage it as effectively as possible for people with vision problems.”
Once the research institute is up and operating, Envision expects to fund its operations from grants, insurance reimbursements and contributions from Envision’s charitable foundation.
Executive director of the Envision Research Institute will be Laura Walker, a doctor at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, who will be in Wichita two weeks a month.
Key to the research is attracting researchers, and funding their work. Envision already has two research fellows, young researchers working on two-year contracts. Ultimately, it expects to have 10 to 15 research fellows in Wichita at any one time.
Walker said there are so few dedicated researchers in the field of blindness-low vision applied research that they have to develop them. Given time, the research fellows working now will gain experience, move on and develop the field.
Envision is interested in having some of these researchers work on validating, or invalidating, the services that Envision itself offers in order to improve them. There are so many questions in services, techniques and technology offered to the blind and vision impaired.
“What we are creating is new and exciting,” Walker said. “You can feel the energy.”