All of a sudden it hit me. “I am blind, I am divorced and I am alone.”
Never had I imagined that losing my eyesight would have such a devastating impact on my self-concept. Every venture outside the familiarity of my home began to pose too great a risk for pain or embarrassment. It was the reason I left my profession as a banker and withdrew from my friends and family. My lack of confidence had changed who I was.
Before retinitis pigmentosa began to rob me of my eyesight, I lived what many people consider the perfect life: I had a fabulous marriage, healthy child and beautiful home. A degenerative disease is interesting, because often people don’t experience symptoms at the time of the initial diagnosis. In my case, it was not until ten years after my diagnosis that my vision became so impaired I was unable to drive, shop or walk safely through my neighborhood. I felt as though I had become a shell of the person I once had been.
After my divorce, I realized that I had stopped living. I just existed. One day, inconsolable and curled up in a ball on my floor (which was a good day because I had actually gotten out of bed), I had a moment of clarity: something needed to change—dramatically. I began to think about my son who may be affected by this hereditary disease. For both our sakes, it was imperative I stopped playing the victim and gave myself a chance to survive.
Volunteerism became my recourse. If I could help other people the way I had prior to losing my vision, I thought I might be able to lift myself out of a sea of self-pity. The skills I possessed from my banking days were transferable, and I knew I could be an asset to an organization if they would look past my visual impairment and give me a chance to serve.
A simple Google search of volunteer opportunities in the Indianapolis area led me to a place that would become a catalyst for a life-saving transformation. Bosma Enterprises, the second search result, was not only located a mere three miles from my home, but it also served people who were blind or visually impaired. After meeting with the volunteer coordinator and touring the center, it was apparent that volunteering would give me the opportunity to make others the center of my attention and consequently focus less on my own problems. In addition to the intrinsic benefits that come with volunteering, being at Bosma also presented an unexpected reward: the opportunity to meet a diverse group of successful, educated and productive people who were totally blind.
One of my first volunteer assignments was to help a man who had lost most of his eyesight as a result of multiple sclerosis relearn how to sign his name. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be an adult, a college graduate, and not able to sign my own name. While my functional vision was reduced to looking at the world as through a straw, I realized that I was blessed to still have my health and to not have to deal with many of the additional obstacles others encounter on a daily basis. Admittedly, I felt guilty for spending even one day feeling sorry for myself.
Along with his rehabilitation teacher who is also blind, I spent several sessions working with this man to perfect his signature. Since the multiple sclerosis had severely impaired his coordination, we first started by writing his name on a white board. Within weeks, the man was able to sign his first name within the confines of a signature guide: a credit card-sized aide that people who are blind use to know where to place their signature. Thinking back on that time, I’m still deeply moved. It was the perfect experience for me at a pivotal time in my life.
After four months as a standard volunteer, I was recruited to be an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) assigned to Bosma Enterprises. Often referred to as the “domestic Peace Corps,” the AmeriCorps VISTA program is a federally-funded, national service program committed to eradicating poverty. With a 70 percent poverty rate among people who are blind or visually impaired, I seized the opportunity to help make a difference by assisting in the development of Bosma’s volunteer program.
In my ten months of service to my country, I have had the opportunity to recruit volunteers and to fundraise. While I am thrilled to have exceeded my initial goals, the accomplishments I’m most proud of weren’t even on my work plan. Developing an Internal Volunteer (IV) program was my version of “paying it forward.” The IV program trains Bosma employees to volunteer for other nonprofits and then works with local organizations to provide meaningful service opportunities for the newly trained volunteers. I knew the impact volunteering had on me, and I wanted to share this opportunity to serve others with the people in our organization.
Since the IV program’s inception last fall, about a third of the 150+ employees at the company have attended training, with more than 30 actually serving in the community. A recent highlight of our volunteer activity centered on an ABILITY Build, which brings people with all types of disabilities to help build a home for a lowincome family. After driving for nearly two hours to get to the site, our team of blind and low-vision volunteers was quick to grab the necessary tools, listen to a brief training and get to work! Whether our volunteers were hanging sheeting on the exterior walls or gluing insulation in the home’s crawl space, we were quick to demonstrate our vision impairments weren’t about to slow us down! In fact, when work in the crawl space was being delayed until lighting was run, one of the volunteers pointed out with a chuckle the light wasn’t going to make any difference… and work commenced!
Typically Bosma employees who are blind—especially those with secondary disabilities—are on the receiving end of service. It truly changes a person to have the opportunity to give, rather than be given to. It is this understanding coupled with my personal experiences as an AmeriCorps VISTA member that prompts me to promote disability inclusion in national service. Through my year of national service, my confidence in my professional abilities has been restored, and I have been able to produce tangible and measurable results. Volunteerism has become my stepping stone to initiate my foray back into the workforce and to leave the disability income I have received behind.
I have been with vision and without. And with just a few exceptions, I can do everything I did before; sometimes it just takes a different approach. All I had to do was get out of my own way to make it happen.
by Lise Cox