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In its heyday, Volunteer Braille Services had as many as 50 volunteer "Braillers" to transcribe a variety of written materials — from books and owner's manuals to church hymnals — into Braille. Now there are four, said Cindi Laurent, coordinator at the Golden Valley-based nonprofit. As a result, Volunteer Braille Services will close May 31.

"We finally made the decision that we don't have the people anymore to keep up," Laurent said. "There comes a point that you just can't do it anymore."

Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers by people who are blind or who have low vision. Started in 1968 to train sighted volunteers to transcribe print into Braille, Volunteer Braille Services has helped untold thousands of people over the decades, Laurent said.

"We did the kinds of things a mom wants to do for her child," Laurent said, adding that jobs included "a Bible for a guy in Papua, New Guinea," restaurant menus and books for small colleges in Nebraska and Kansas.

Matt Kramer, executive director of Vision Loss Resources, said that while Braille is being used less and less — especially by young people whose smartphones offer a number of alternate capabilities — the loss of Volunteer Braille Services "is a really big deal." Vision Loss Resources is a nonprofit that provides community and training for people with vision loss in the Twin Cities.

He said the service was particularly helpful for adult customers who need instruction manuals translated. While Kramer said less than 1% of all published books are translated into Braille, the service is critically important to many adults. "Particularly for low-vision people who were employed, they were an incredible resource," he said.

The decision to discontinue the longtime nonprofit was actually made by its board of directors last fall, Laurent said, although officials there were hopeful they could find enough people to keep going. But volunteer numbers have been dwindling for years, she said, in part because becoming a "Brailler" is a heavy time commitment.

Training people to operate the specialized Braille equipment can take nine months to two years, Laurent said. Many volunteers, squeezed by jobs and other demands, were asking for assignments that didn't have the deadlines that come with the Braille work.

"More and more, we were facing many of the same issues" as other organizations struggling to attract volunteers, Laurent said.

Minnesota State Services for the Blind, part of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, does convert a variety of printed materials to Braille, but Braille section supervisor Jay Maruska said most of its staff members work to transcribe K-12 textbooks. Volunteer Braille Services will be missed, Maruska said, but he doesn't anticipate its shuttering will make more work for state transcribers.