In Memoriam: Toula Oberlies
Remembering A Passionate Advocate for Children with Vision Impairments
By: Seth Johnson and Laura Alvarado
It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of emeritus board member and friend, Toula Oberlies. Toula served in numerous leadership roles as a board member for the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation (IBCF) since the mid-1990s.
Toula passed away on Saturday, January 13, 2024 surrounded by her children after fighting a nearly three year cancer battle. Toula is remembered as a tireless advocate for children with vision impairments who lit up every room with her energy and passion for life.
As a charter member of IBCF, Toula Oberlies was instrumental in growing the foundation from a small group of volunteers into a well-established organization that provides opportunities and experiences for staff, parents, and students, served at and through the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI). She served in virtually all capacities and offices since the early ‘90s. While volunteering for IBCF initially brought her to the ISBVI campus, her love for the students and providing them with experiences kept her coming back in other roles and capacities. She was influential in acquiring funding through IBCF from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust in its inaugural year of philanthropic giving for the creation of the school library as well as the accessibility upgrades years later. The school aquatics center also benefited from Toula’s leadership as she raised financial support and awareness for equipment and supplies necessary to maintain the aquatics program.
"I once asked Toula where her passion and fight for children with vision impairments came from. Her decades-long commitment to a board is unique to most non-profits. She opened up about being a young immigrant from Egypt in middle America in the 1950s who couldn’t speak the language, dressed differently, and had a stutter. She understood what it was like to be different. We both knew at that moment where her passion stemmed.” IBCF executive director, Laura Alvarado
Toula tirelessly studied the dictionary as a young person trying to learn English in an effort to fit in but her stutter often shook her confidence. Toula shared, “One day during my junior year of high school, my speech teacher suggested I sing-song my speech to the class. When I talked, I stuttered, but when I sang, my stutter disappeared. This was a defining moment for me. My stuttering didn’t end that day, but I learned of a way to adapt, strengthen my voice, and discovered my joy of singing.”
As a longstanding member of the Capital City Chorus, Toula established a collaborative partnership with ISBVI students singing alongside her talented fellow Capital City Singers both on and off campus. She helped the school choir acquire uniforms, and the girls singing with the Capital City Chorus received costumes so they would, in Toula’s words, “look their best.” The students cherished the experience while gaining a greater appreciation for organized singing, improving their musical abilities, and connecting with positive role models. Several of the students went on to perform with Capital City Chorus, and one young woman became a member. Toula’s love of the arts was profound and contagious.
Toula shared more about her connection to our students and how she became an IBCF board member back in 2021 through the video above prior to launching the Toula Oberlies Creative Arts Fund, an endowed fund devoted to ensuring students at ISBVI have access to unique creative arts experiences dreamt up by their teachers that can take place both on or off campus.
The Toula Oberlies Creative Arts Fund (TOCAF) was established in 2021 to honor Toula’s esteemed legacy. Since 2022, this fund has provided students at ISBVI with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to uniquely experience music, art, writing, dance, and theater in both Chicago and Washington D.C.
In 2022, Toula announced and awarded the inaugural TOCAF grant to ISBVI music and history teachers, Janelle Pivec and Josh Baxter, for their Bright Lights, Big City, Chicago Extravaganza trip to Chicago. As part of this theater-centric adventure, ISBVI students worked with Second City Chicago in a half-day improvisational workshop, experienced an accessible Broadway Chicago production of The Lion King, and toured DePaul University's Theatre School.
“The Chicago trip was an absolute blast,” said Baxter after returning from Chicago. “Trips with large groups of students, even fun ones, can be tiring, and have their issues. This trip was fortunate to escape pretty much anything negative. It was seamless and had an energy with the whole group that sustained everyone there. Whenever something goes really right in life, it has a feel to it, and this trip had that feeling. The students were having fun, they were learning, and the adults were right there with them doing the same.”
In 2023, ISBVI art and music teachers, Leslie Walsh and Sean Bradley, were awarded the second annual TOCAF grant for their Arts for All trip to Washington D.C. As part of this multifaceted excursion, the group of ISBVI students and staff visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Portrait Gallery.
“Having the opportunity to provide a wide array of experiences at museums and concert halls across D.C. was such a blessing,” said Bradley after returning from Washington D.C. “It shows that each student was impacted in their own unique way, and we are eternally grateful to IBCF and the Toula Oberlies Creative Arts Fund for providing such an incredible opportunity for our students.”
Toula Oberlies’ legacy will continue to be honored for years to come through the annual TOCAF grant. Creativity opens the hearts and minds of both participants and audience members. Toula's life has exemplified an enormous passion for both the creative arts and the students of ISBVI, this fund is a fitting tribute to her. The Toula Oberlies Creative Arts Fund is a promise to current and future ISBVI students that their lives will be enriched by experiences that spark, sustain, and generate creativity.
If you would like to honor Toula’s legacy of making unique creative opportunities available to ISBVI students and teachers for generations to come, click on the donate button below to support the Toula Oberlies Creative Arts Fund.