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Lighthouse guides sightless to new lives

A rehabilitation center for the blind helps those who think losing their vision feels like losing everything.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002


Like a lot of other people who suffer from vision loss, Lil Redlus resisted help at first.

When the Hudson woman was diagnosed with macular degeneration in January, she didn't want to accept it. She had always considered herself a "young" senior. She had always taken pride in her health and the size 5 figure she'd sweated to maintain.

But gradually, as the blood vessels in her eye leaked and blurred her central vision, her independence became difficult to maintain. Reading the newspaper, pouring coffee -- even recognizing her face in the mirror became impossible.

She strained and she spilled, and she found herself in a fit of rage, throwing checks she could no longer read across the room.

By the time a friend suggested the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind in March, she was ready to reach out. "Anything that will help," she said, "I'll take."

The 19-year-old rehabilitation center, which has offices in Port Richey and Brooksville, offers free support, instruction and resources to those who are losing their vision, and the people who care for them. It sells items such as jumbo playing cards, talking alarm clocks and watches and large-print address books.

The Lighthouse offers classes in braille, computers, independent living, the cane and job training. It also has a lending library of books on tape.

Many people who lose their vision are also coping with money problems, other illnesses or the loss of a spouse. They become afraid to leave the comfort of their easy chairs. Their homes start to feel like minefields.

There are walls and chairs to trip over, hot stoves, and cans of Raid that feel just like cans of hair spray.

At the Lighthouse, counselors and teachers made it all a little less scary.

In a class called "Passages," Redlus learned how to move from denial toward acceptance of her vision loss. In a class on independent living, she learned how to brush her teeth, shop and pick out her clothes without sight. And she learned to do things she'd never done before -- even with sight.

"I don't think that I could have ever come as far as I have without them," Redlus said. "They have done me so much good."

They taught her how to stay positive, even when her vision was at its worst.

"At another time, I used to say I can't do" something, she said. "Today I think, it will be better tomorrow. There was a time when I couldn't say that."

On a bulletin board above her desk, rehabilitation teacher Virginia Salagaras has pinned a bumper sticker that reads: "Attitude is the only disability."

It's that attitude that has helped Rose Bocchino cope with her condition, as much as the new skills she has gained to cope with the tasks of daily life.

"At the Lighthouse, they make you feel very important and that you have a life to live and something to give to the world," said Bocchino, 71, of Wesley Chapel. "They don't talk down to you. I hate being with people who make me feel like I'm senile."

Bocchino, who also suffers from macular degeneration, learned how to use the cane and how to read using braille. In January, she'll begin an art class.

And for many others, the Lighthouse classes offer companionship to help cope with the isolation vision loss can deliver.

"It's people to talk to," said Louise Mandeville, 86, who took the art and independent living classes. "I'm not going to sit and watch TV or what I can see of it 24 hours a day."

For John Dauginas, a retired draftsman, it created a whole world of uncharted territory.

"I could say, it opened up my eyes," Dauginas, 83, says with a laugh. "It helped me see that there's other things in life besides just being able to see things. That you can see and hear and feel and sense them. It's just helped out considerably."

Where to call

To reach the Lighthouse, call (727) 815-0303 in Pasco. Call (352) 754-1132 in Hernando.

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