This is one of an occasional Prime Time series highlighting volunteers.
By MICHELLE ROBBINS
Tribune Chronicle photo / Michelle Robbins
Ilona Labusch reads from the newspaper recently at the Youngstown Radio Reading Service, which broadcasts materials for the print impaired. She is in what’s called the “live room,” although the majority of the station’s segments are recorded.
Ilona Labusch shares her vision with more than a thousand people each week. Literally.
Labusch, of Niles, is a volunteer for the Youngstown Radio Reading Service, a program provided by Goodwill that broadcasts materials for the print impaired.
For a couple of hours each week, Labusch recites what she calls "the lighter side" of the news, none of the hard stuff. She usually starts out with the obituaries from two local newspapers, then moves on to features like Annie's Mailbox, Heloise or horoscopes.
On a recent Friday in the "live room," Labusch began her shift with an obituary from the Tribune Chronicle.
"I used to think you had to be solemn to read obituaries, but they're a part of life," Labusch said, after reading about a recently deceased woman, 95, who enjoyed, among other things, fashion and competitive fishing.
"I like reading the local newspaper," Labusch said. "The obituaries, some of them are like a little history of the Mahoning Valley."
She shares anything that's going on around town, such as fairs and flea markets, and said that listeners love the "Orchids and Onions" editorials in the Tribune.
Mike Bosela, Youngstown Goodwill's Radio Reading coordinator, said the service has close to 1,200 listeners, including those in nursing homes and hospital rooms. Most of the material is recorded, though a few items are still done live.
"Ilona didn't need any training," Bosela said. "She took right to it."
"I think I just read the way I talk, and I just hope it doesn't come over as a monotone," Labusch said.
The retiree said she's even recorded entire books. To accomplish this, she would record every day for one or two hours, a process that took a couple of weeks.
"I can't stand to have an unfinished book," she said.
Bosela was especially pleased with Labusch's reading of "Small Town" by Lawrence Block, an author for which the two share an affinity.
"It just flowed," Bosela said.
Labusch has only met a couple of her listeners. One man calls a lot, and she thinks he might be a fan. She appreciates the positive feedback.
"Our audience is very forgiving," she said. "Just grab the paper, and rip and read, so to speak."
She said the atmosphere at the station is very laid back.
"It's not one where Mike says, 'I'm the boss.' He pretty much lets us find our groove," she said. "And when the mic is on, it's all business, because you're the eyes for the blind."
Labusch, who worked for 24 years as a medical technician at St. Joseph Health Center, joked that she began volunteering at the reading service in 1992, when she was 6.
Actually, at 67, the Youngstown native and graduate of YSU also holds a master's degree in education and taught for seven years at ETI Technical College.
Labusch said that in addition to helping others in need, volunteering helps provide structure and socialization for those who are retired.
"If it benefits somebody, then it will also benefit you," she said.
Bosela said about 50 percent of the volunteers at Radio Reading are retirees.
"I'm convinced that some people are afraid to retire because they think, 'What am I going to do?'" Labusch said. "It kind of gives you a sense of purpose."
She also says it's important to diversify - her volunteer work isn't just for children, or just the visually impaired. She spends time in the gift shop at the Butler Art Museum, helps with the amblyopia vision screening for 4-year-olds and makes reminder calls for the Veterans Affairs clinic.
When she's not volunteering, Labusch enjoys spending time and walking with her rescue dog, Rocky. She also likes having lunch with others, where she can have "a good conversation."
When it comes to her own listening habits, she enjoys National Public Radio.
"I like what they do on NPR," she said. "It's like reading a newspaper - you get the entire story, not just a sound bite."
When she's reading the entire story to others, Labusch said her voice sometimes gets tired or hoarse.
"You can say, 'Excuse me, I'm going to take a drink of coffee or water,' but I don't like to," she said.
"She's tough. She doesn't usually take a pause," Bosela said. "She's very, very good."