Following the Blind Lady Through the Brick Wall
Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people. – Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
Like most people my age, my body reminds me occasionally, that yes, I am 50+ years old. Last year, I had a neurosurgeon look at the four herniated disks in my neck tell me my MRI looked like that of a 75 year old… who’d been in an accident. Like a good, near- Octogenarian, I promptly ignored him. Despite some wear and tear on the body, I’m still 22 years old in my mind. In my fantasy world, I can still make hearts melt, shut down anyone alive on the basketball court, and party as hard as anyone on South Beach. Actually none of those were ever the case, but the fantasy has remained intact all these years. That is, it had been intact until I got slapped down to size by a contemporary. Gulp… she’s a woman. She’s also blind.
I met Virginia Jacko, the CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, one evening at an awards banquet. She entered the pre-event cocktail reception with her seeing- eye dog and a colleague. She walked up to me, introduced herself, and after a brief conversation, we agreed to meet the following week.
The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind is a little oasis tucked into a mixed commercial / residential neighborhood two blocks off of SW 8th Street in Miami (“Calle Ocho”). I met Virginia in her conference room and she shared her story. She had been an executive at Purdue University when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. She began a frightening gradual loss of vision until she was completely blind. Originally a client at the Miami Lighthouse, she began to volunteer, then served on the board, and ultimately accepted the role of President.
Virginia took me on a tour of the facility. I witnessed adults learning to cook, high school students recording music in a sound studio, and a class of young children preparing for a music program. I panicked during the tour, struggling to remain a gentlemen (opening doors), and not being patronizing. If Virginia noticed my anxiety, she didn’t comment. She was too busy talking to everyone she passed, offering encouragement, direction, or just a friendly word.
What I witnessed was an organization that is run with managerial best practices to rival any middle market business. It is also a haven of support and training for the sightless that is changing lives. The Miami Lighthouse has several innovative programs that have an impact statewide and are being copied nationally.
As I left the Miami Lighthouse that day, I regarded Virginia as confident. Classy. Smart. On a mission. After reading Virginia’s autobiography, The Blind Visionary, I learned even more about what drives Virginia and has made her successful.
Virginia taught me some powerful lessons :
Don’t give in to fear. Virginia described an incident where she was trying to adjust the harness on a new seeing-eye dog, lost her balance and fell off the seawall into Biscayne Bay. As she fell through the air, she didn’t know if she was about to hit the water at high tide, or crash on the rocks at low tide. She was fortunate it was high tide. After waiting for a witness to bring a ladder so she could climb out of the water, she went to her condo and was understandably shaken by the experience. When every fiber in her body wanted to stay in the safety of her condo, what did she do? She took her dog back outside and completed exactly what she started out to do an hour before. With the transformation from the sighted to sightless world, she had daily challenges where she could have easily given in to fear. Dealing with business executives, government officials and potential donors. Cooking and sewing for herself. The prospect of changing careers and failing. It would have been easy to quit – and retreat to a less visible role (pun intended!) than the face and voice of Miami Lighthouse. Moments of weakness and doubt are natural, but Virginia’s perseverance and her strength of will are powerful reminders to us all not to listen to the little voice that says “I can’t.” If I’m ever stuck in a bunker and fighting for my life, I want Virginia Jacko with me. What is fear preventing you from doing? Is the downside risk real or imagined? What would result if you persevered and pushed through the fear?
Keep things in perspective. Even as you acknowledge Virginia’s inspirational story, it is hard not to focus on the challenges and disappointments in her life. But you meet with Virginia and are taken by her optimism and sense of humor. As I took the tour of Miami Lighthouse, we entered a room where young children were preparing for a music program. I noticed one small girl who sat on the floor, while her classmates stood. As I drew closer, I saw that she had no legs, malformed arms, and was sightless. She bobbed her head with the music, and grinned broadly. I think I was witnessing pure joy. As I confront my own challenges and setbacks, I have great examples now to give me perspective. What gives you perspective? Do you have a spiritual grounding to rely on? Are you involved with any individuals or organizations who remind you of the blessings that you enjoy in your life?
Focus on making a difference in the lives of others. There is no question that Virginia’s life is very different than what she planned thirty years before. But when you see the impact that she is having on the sightless – and sighted – in Florida, it is easy to conclude that she is doing what she was meant to do. Through her leadership, the Miami Lighthouse is providing a higher quality of life for the sightless. It is delivering vision testing programs around the state for underprivileged children to potentially prevent blindness . She’s also ensuring that the Miami Lighthouse provides resources and information to the community at large. Are you giving your time and experience to help others? Who are you mentoring? Are you making a difference in someone else’s life?
As you can tell, Virginia Jacko and the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind made a powerful impression on me. She makes me question what I’m doing to help others (and am I doing enough?). She also helps me see the brick walls in front of me and inspires me to go over, around – or right through them.
Who gives you perspective? What about their story inspires you?
Learn more about the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind.
Virginia Jacko’s autobiography, The Blind Visionary, is available at http://www.theblindvisionary.com
by Karl Sprague
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