Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sunshine Club for the visually impaired

Mary Pearl Knight sat in a chair and cried for two weeks after she lost her eyesight.
The 76-year-old Fairfield resident, a bartender at the local Veterans of Foreign War post at the time, thought her life was over.

Instead, sunshine entered her life.

That's the power of the Sunshine Club.

Its members, all of them visually impaired, meet for lunch once a month at the Lobster Trap restaurant. The gathering often is an opportunity to get helpful tips and information courtesy of professionals from the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired -- a part of the Maine Department of Labor.

But more than education, the Sunshine Club is a chance to talk, a time to socialize with others who understand the struggles of the blind, as well as the importance of being able to discuss the ordinary highs and lows of life.

Monday the club met at the Lobster Trap to celebrate its 10th anniversary. A festive cake accompanied the meal and the dining room -- reserved for the club -- was decorated in colors bright enough for those with limited sight to appreciate.

"It gives you a big lift," Knight said of the club. "You meet a lot of people who are worse off than you."

Knight, who has some peripheral vision, is one of three surviving original members still active in the club. Mable Murphy of Winslow and Ann Rummell of Waterville are the other two.

June Plisga, the Winslow woman who founded the group, died about three years ago, although members still talk about her with reverence.

Betty Soule, who is not blind, took over as president last fall.

Soule has been involved with the club for 10 years. For the first eight years, she would drive her mother, Eleanor Nadeau, and fellow member Murphy to the monthly meetings.

Her mother died about two years ago, but Soule remained involved with the club. She couldn't imagine doing otherwise.

"I'll be honest," she said. "I didn't want to be president, but they are such a wonderful group of people that I couldn't take this away from them."

Plisga, who realized the tendency for blind people to withdraw and isolate themselves, formed the group from the people who attended a class given by the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired. That class, which met at First Congregational Church in Waterville, ended September 1996.

The following month Plisga held the first luncheon of the Sunshine Club.

A close relationship continues between the Sunshine Club and the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired -- Knight said the agency was the key to helping her overcome her initial depression.

Carolyn Bebee, who supervises the division's Augusta and Rockland offices, attended the anniversary celebration, as did Leona McKenna, a rehabilitation counselor who works under Bebee.

McKenna, who is blind, knows intimately the importance of teaching the newly blind how to function in a world of darkness.

"I love my job," she said. "It is a wonderful job, because I can understand what someone is going through. I understand what they are talking about, because this all happened to me."

McKenna and others from her agency teach clients how to use skills and techniques to overcome their blindness. Thermostats, oven dials and microwaves, for instance, can all be outfitted with tactile markers to indicate when a certain temperature or time is triggered.

Knight, who has been blind for 12 years, still appreciates the advice that McKenna and her colleagues provide.

"Quite often these girls from Augusta will come up to visit us and find how we are doing," she said.
McKenna, the client turned counselor, said when people lose their sight they inevitably grieve for a period. Once that process is over, recovery is possible as long as support is available -- that's when the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Sunshine Club enter the picture.
"When I first lost my vision," McKenna said, "I thought I would just sit in a dark room for the rest of my life. It is not like that at all. I don't see myself as living in a world of darkness at all."


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