WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Learning Ally satellite office at Sweetwood Retirement Living closed Friday, as part of a cost-cutting measure by the Princeton, N.J. based nonprofit that records audio books for the visually and reading impaired.
"I was shocked when I got the news and immensely saddened, and I think that is mostly how everyone felt," Williamstown volunteer Kathy McKnight said.
The office, which had about 20 regular volunteers, has been operating out of a suite in Sweetwood since June 2012, and prior to that, was located at St. John's Episcopal Church for two and a half years. The Williamstown office first opened in 1968, and has been in locations on Water Street, Main Street and Cole Avenue.
Also falling victim to the closings was the area's main Learning Ally studio in Lenox. About 120 volunteers who record 3,000 hours a year of audio books at that location were notified in an email from President and CEO Andrew Friedman a few days ago. It had two paid employees.
"From what I've been told, it's for economic reasons," said Jennifer Golin, of Adams, who's been the production director at the Lenox facility for five years. "They're reshaping the production model to produce more books at a lower cost by using volunteers from home."
Learning Ally, formerly Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic but renamed in April 2011 in order to include attention-deficit disorder and autistic clients, plans to develop "virtual volunteering" by training participants to work from home using digital recording software.
McKnight, who has volunteered in Williamstown for 10 years, said that she understood why the model changed, but wished they had more notice.
"It was a very important part of people's lives," she said. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the volunteers."
The closing of eight studios around the country is the second cut-back the organization has made in several years. Learning Ally closed 29 branches, including one in Williamstown, in 2010 because of the uncertain economy and as an effort to consolidate.
But McKnight said there was such a loyal group of people in North County, volunteers banded together to look for a place to continue.
In addition, she said, volunteers wanted to continue having Williams College students volunteer their time. Students often read text books with maps, illustrations, graphs and equations, she said.
"They made it a great deal of fun, and students found it very enriching," she said.
McKnight and other volunteers helped secure use of a classroom at St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown in 2010 after that year's round of closings. After two years, volunteers decided a more permanent location was needed.
In his email, Friedman urged volunteers to continue "to be part of our future," and described Learning Ally's need "to produce books faster, less expensively and with text in addition to audio narration to meet our members' needs."
McKnight said she isn't sure who will continue with the virtual volunteering.
"A lot of us are still recovering from the shock," she said.
New England Newspapers correspondent Clarence Fanto contributed to this report.