By Erika Webb
Wendy Wilson is proof well-functioning eyes are not necessary for one to see. A compassionate heart will do just fine.
The petite redhead from DeLand had years to prepare psychologically for the inevitable loss of her sight. A type 1 diabetic from the age of two, Ms. Wilson's vision began to diminish in her early 20s. By 33 she had lost her sight completely.
"That was last year," she said laughing.
She didn't reveal her age but she quickly revealed a sense of humor, which she said is as imperative to her life as any tool she owns for visual impairment.
Ms. Wilson is the president of the DeLand Lions Club and helps with the Lions District 35-0 Hearing Program. She is a consultant for NFB-NEWSLINE, the National Federation of the Blind newspaper service for the visually impaired. She is a volunteer with the Braille and Talking Book Library in Daytona Beach, the Impaired Vision Resource Foundation, H.E.L.P. Animals, Inc. and Good Shepherd Monastery in DeLand. And she sells low vision equipment.
Her commitment to service earned Ms. Wilson the Daily Point of Light Award that honors individuals and groups creating meaningful change in communities across America.
Four years ago she took on another role as assistant to adjunct professor, Ray Siracusa, who leads the seminar, Assisting Persons with Limited Vision at Daytona State College.
In fact, Ms. Wilson persuaded Mr. Siracusa, who has a degree in psychology, to teach the class so she could be involved.
This four-hour continuing education credit course instructs health care professionals, or any individual, on how to properly assist the visually impaired.
Students watch equipment demonstrations and learn how to arrange a home to accommodate a limited-vision or blind person; to tactile or audibly label essential items; record information on plastic talk cards; file and retrieve information; and learn how to guide a visually impaired person and enhance their independence.
Mildred Frank, a Daytona Beach resident for most of her life, experienced progressive vision loss from low vision to eventual blindness. She developed coping skills and worked as an advocate for others until her death two years ago at 92. She wrote a manual Ms. Wilson said is used in the class to train those desiring to become "vision aides."
Ms. Wilson had plenty to do, but she said Ms. Frank had become her mentor and the compulsion to carry on her work could not be ignored.
"She was almost like my second mother," Ms. Wilson said. "Her whole deal in life was to keep pushing for people to recognize the needs of the blind while understanding we're normal people. I had to promise her I would keep it up."
Visual impairment has taught Ms. Wilson what happens when people aren't educated about differences.
"In the class we teach them that our IQs don't drop just because we're visually impaired," she said. "It's hard to get people to realize they should treat us like everyone else."
But equal treatment has not always meant good treatment. Once, while in the intensive care unit of a hospital, a health care worker brought a food tray without alerting Ms. Wilson and she knocked it over. Other times, she's been left in hospital hallways.
"You go to the doctor's office and they say, 'follow me,'" she said. "We show (students) mobility, how to take someone's arm the proper way."
Ms. Wilson said she called technical support for a computer problem she was having. The technician asked if the lights were on. When she explained she couldn't see the lights the technician asked if the lights were blinking.
"It can be challenging at times," she said.
There have been other challenges as well. After she lost her sight, Ms. Wilson's husband became ill. It wasn't long before the man who played tricks on her was in a nursing home.
"One time he tried to walk me through sprinklers, but I have excellent hearing," she said, laughing.
Ms. Wilson said she couldn't find the money they'd saved and she ended up without a place to live.
"It wasn't his fault. It turned out to be ... Alzheimer's," she said, laughing as she searched for the word. "The money had just disappeared and I didn't know what he did with our money. Thank goodness he forgot he smoked, so I didn't have to buy cigarettes."
But Ms. Wilson said she's a survivor, trained by her mother, along with her four brothers and sisters, to be of service and to work toward the solution in any problematic situation.
Though she gives her time and effort to many organizations, she said she owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Lions Club.
"People out there helped me, especially the Lions," she said. "Here's a bunch of strangers and they helped me."
Not one to blame or complain, Ms. Wilson only brushed lightly against health care deficits, saying some of her involvement resulted from discovering people, often those on Social Security, didn't have adequate insurance coverage for services they needed.
"That's what got me involved in the hearing program," she said.
The main charitable causes of the Lions worldwide are eyesight, hearing, and diabetes education programs.
The Lions District 35-0 Hearing program provides new hearing aids to children under the age of 18. Those 18 and older receive refurbished hearing aids.
Mobile evaluation with a digital-vision screening device, which identifies potential eye problems in children, is another sight, and sometimes lifesaving, service the Lions offer.
"We've found kids in second, third and fourth grade who were deemed a behavior problem because they can't see," Ms. Wilson said.
Her helpful tendencies extend to the four-legged population, too. Ms. Wilson said H.E.L.P. Animals Inc. is another of her favorite charities. Low-cost shot clinics are one of the many animal-related services the organization provides.
"I hold the puppies and the kittens at the shot clinics since I can't do the paperwork," Ms. Wilson said.
She added she has to resist the temptation to take more animals home, where she already has dogs, cats and a "multi-lingual" parrot.
Ms. Wilson is a friend to all and priests are certainly no exception. She calls herself a "new Catholic" and said she became friends with a visually impaired man who happens to be a priest.
"We both like to talk," she said.
When she contacted him to offer help he asked her how she found him.
"He asked me if there's a book of blind people or something. I said, 'yeah, didn't you get yours?'"
But it turned out the priest had been diagnosed with diabetes and, once again, Ms. Wilson was able to be of service.
"The doctor told him (because he was visually impaired) he wouldn't be able to manage the diabetes," she said.
Ms. Wilson told her friend about talking glucometers and more. He's managing just fine she said.
The difficulty, when it comes to this woman, is in the pinpointing. She's like a tiny tree with branches extending in myriad directions.
She simply, and modestly, summarizes herself as nosy.
In the end, she's most easily categorized as a referral service, 411 personified, but with more information.
No matter what the problem is, Ms. Wilson doesn't have time to bump around in darkness. She's way too busy turning on the lights.