Dartmouth parishioner is voice behind audiobooks for people with special needs

By Kenneth J. Souza
Web Editor
kensouza@anchornews.org

DARTMOUTH, Mass. — There was a time when Bob Zeida envisioned himself working as a radio broadcaster, with a career as an on-air meteorologist.

“I have always had a voice, and I hoped to use it in the broadcast business some 60 years ago, but it didn’t work out that way,” Zeida said. “I aspired to be a radio or television personality because that was just about when television was starting.”

Despite receiving a degree in Radio and Television Broadcasting from American University in Washington, D.C., Zeida eventually found his niche in the wine and spirits industry, spending most of his 33 years in the business as a sales and purchasing professional with United Liquors, Ltd.

“I ended up in Dartmouth in another business altogether where the opportunity presented itself — and I’ve been here ever since,” Zeida told The Anchor. “All my children grew up in the Dartmouth school system and I’ve always been a practicing Catholic.”

To that end, Zeida has also been a devoted member of St. Julie Billiart Parish pretty much since its inception nearly 51 years ago.

“I was at the ground floor of every volunteer opportunity — I became sort of a regular on the altar,” Zeida said. “I got on the choir and I canto red for about three or four years. Then about 1980, the church opened up these other ministries, like pastoral care and hospital ministry. I’ve always been very deeply encased in the Catholic faith.”

In fact, it was this close relationship to parish life that eventually led him to his current labor of love: recording audiobooks for people with special needs.

“I was called by a woman at Bishop Stang High School to ask me if I would record books for them for their special needs students,” Zeida said. “It’s literally attached to the property of St. Julie Billiart Church, so I was very familiar with them, and they were familiar with me. They are just a credit to our Catholic faith.”

Having just retired from United Liquors, Zeida began volunteering his time with the Talking Information Center, a Marshfield-based non-profit organization that provides the reading of print information to blind and legally blind individuals living on the South Shore. It was this initial connection that ultimately turned into a more than 30-year journey of recording books for the visually- and learning-impaired.

“I had been working for 27 years for United Liquors, which is probably the largest beverage alcohol distributor in Massachusetts,” Zeida said. “Then one day I took a ride over to TIC in Marshfield and I’ve been working with them ever since. I was given a commendation just this past year for 31 years of recording with TIC.”

Since 1988, Zeida has worked on hundreds of voice recordings for the visually- and learning-impaired, and every quarter he publishes a catalog of more than 600 fiction and non-fiction books — including best sellers, textbooks, articles, magazines, and manuals — representing countless hours of work over the span of more than 30 years. Although most of his work is tailored for teachers with special needs students at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, his recordings are suitable for people of all ages. The material is offered at no cost as a digital MP3 file that listeners can easily download to their smartphones or personal computers.

“I’ve done more than 400 books as of this writing,” Zeida said. “I’ve done (books) big and small, you know, it could be anything from Dr. Seuss to almost all the high school textbooks. We started recording them on cassettes. Then, as the different technologies came along, I progressed with it. My son Kerry is a bit of a ‘techie,’ so he’s helped me over the years.”

“I remember literally boxes of cassettes and later CDs, then DVDs, and now everything is in Dropbox or on a thumb drive that he mails to people,” Kerry said. “It’s just become easier and easier for him to share this information.”

The audiobooks are provided free-of-charge to anyone with special needs under a law that allows their dissemination solely for educational purposes.

“This is not something that is recorded or distributed to (anyone),” Kerry explained. “If you don’t have a recognized special need, you are not authorized to listen to (or) share these recordings. We share them mostly with priests or with school educators we’ve known for a long time. And the relationships we have with these people are very tight, so they understand the purpose. It is recorded under the assumption that it will be used for students with special needs and is therefore protected by this law.”

For more than three decades, Zeida has come to realize that the service he humbly provides is much more than a pastime — it’s a calling.

He continues to reach out to organizations and school systems that might benefit from the unique and often personalized services he can provide.

“I steep myself in it and it’s become part of my life,” Zeida said. “I do this every morning for two or three hours, or until my voice let’s go. I used to spend a lot of my spare time in amateur radio, talking (to people) around the world. I don’t do that anymore, so I had to find something to fill the void.”

“If you look at the work that my father produces, it isn’t just one reading from the beginning of a book to the end,” Kerry added. “It’s designed very painstakingly to create chapters and section marks and descriptions so that you can move around all of these different books. Some of them are manuals, so they’re complicated with photos and it’s very easy as an instructor to take a book and use it as an instructional tool because everything is so well-crafted.”

“I cross every T and dot every I, chapter by chapter, subsection by subsection, including illustrations and graphs,” Zeida said. “Verbally speaking, I’ve gotten so good at it over the years, I actually make it come out in the voice as to what the student is looking at or listening to and shine it up nice and clear. That’s why I have so many tracks (for each book).”

“This stuff is not like most Audible books you would buy online,” Kerry said. “He’ll take the time to actually describe the illustration to immerse the reader into the experience. This has become more a labor of love than a hobby over the years. And I think the fact that his faith is layered on top of it just makes it more personal and, in some ways, more urgent for him.”

A perfect example of Zeida’s attention to detail would be a project he just completed for Bishop Stang High School in which he recorded a series of books from Ave Maria Press that were needed for the start of school in the fall.

“They gave me two textbooks for the freshmen class and two textbooks for the sophomore class. It actually is a complete breakdown and an introduction to Catholic faith,” Zeida said. “It’s all about Jesus and His teachings and it’s this giant illustrated book with maps and charts. These two volumes averaged between 300 to 400 tracks and that project took me a month for each book. That’s the biggest single project that had to be done in a quick time frame because Stang has enrolled for September seven or eight special needs individuals.”

“I’ve been back here now six years sort of observing the progression of his work and the requests to do specific books that fueled the original part of his catalog,” Kerry said. “That has really evolved in the last couple of years to my father wanting to share his work with the Catholic community. So, he started to record a lot more work [including that] big, giant project that he just finished this summer for Bishop Stang High School. He is very, very passionate about trying to provide a service for faith-based organizations.”

Now that Zeida has amassed a library of more than 400 titles, the challenge for him now, is to find additional works that might benefit educators with special needs students.

“I generally wait to hear from an established contact in the school system, because I’ve been around so long, all the local school systems pretty much know about my product,” Zeida said.

Kerry said his father “really wants to share the (work he does) with people who have the ability to and the need to use this information.”

“And the fact that you can now share it so much more efficiently through cloud storage is changing the game,” Kerry said. “But you can’t assume everyone knows what an MP3 file is or how to create a Dropbox folder. So, some of this stuff ends up being lost in the translation.”

When asked if he has a favorite book or author that he’s done over the years, Zeida is noncommittal.

“To be honest with you, I don’t have a particular favorite recording because I’ve done so many,” he said. “I love the subject of history. I went through the Second World War [and] I was in the Korean War. I’ve always had a great temptation to continue to find out more about the Nazis during World War II [because] I lived through that era.”

Zeida did earn an award recently for doing an audiobook for Ilana Offenberger, a history professor at UMass Dartmouth, who wrote a historical account of her family and the Jews in Vienna, Austria during World War II.

“That was a great example of how she found out about him through contacts,” Kerry said. “They worked together closely to discuss what she needed [and] she figured out how to integrate it into her special needs curriculum, and then it just became another way for her to tell her family’s story. So, it’s that kind of custom recording that’s the most satisfying.”

Those who might be interested in getting access to Zeida’s existing library of audiobooks or even requesting a special title can simply contact him directly at n1blf@comcast.net

“It’s not as if he seeks out special needs organizations necessarily,” Kerry explained. “I think it’s more through people he knows or who know him through this work. People can request access to the library or ask if he can record a special publication for them for a special need. Even if a parent or a family has a special needs kid or kids, and wants to use this service to help them with reading or learning comprehension, absolutely reach out to my father and he can share the library with them.”

“There’s something there for all of them,” Zeida added. “Even if a school said to me, we would like to have that library so we can pick from it at our leisure, if you will, there’s no cost to them. They can pick and choose without even contacting me.”

For more information about Bob Zeida’s audiobook services, email him at n1blf@comcast.net



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