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Beginning to See the Light

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired, Volunteerism

From Phoenix volunteer Joe Finnerty comes a genuine reminder of why volunteers at Learning Ally are so important. He shares a story about meeting Learning Ally member Erik Weihenmayer, a world class blind adventurer and one of the climbers featured in the documentary "Blindsight." I became a volunteer for Recording for the Blind in 1993. The Phoenix Studio provided volunteers with various statistics that measured our productivity, but I longed to hear from a user who could affirm the value of our efforts. This desire was fulfilled when I heard Erik Weihenmayer speak at a Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon on April 23, 1994, his first public speaking appearance. After a few moments of nervous apprehension, he captured the attention of the audience. Erik told us about his life, how he had been born with limited vision before becoming completely blind by eighth grade. Raised in Princeton, he graduated from Boston College and currently teaches fifth grade students Math and English at Phoenix Country Day school, and is their wrestling coach, a sport in which he competed while in college. Blindsight, movie posterOver the years, he accompanied his family on adventurous vacations. They trekked up the Andes to explore ancient Incan ruins, hiked through primitive areas of New Guinea, climbed the rugged mountain passes of Pakistan, and went to other exotic and remote regions of the world, not as tourists but as adventurers. Some volunteers had seen Erik on TV the week before the luncheon in a public service announcement that showed him scaling the face of a rocky cliff. He reaches the summit and then faces the camera. Not until then does the audience learn Erik is blind. For the better part of a half hour, Erik held the luncheon audience of volunteers absolutely spellbound. He told us that RFB (now called Learning Ally) had provided him with the books he needed to pursue his education. Once he listened to an audio cassette of an adventure yarn his grade school teacher gave him, he became an ardent reader. He has listened to hundreds of audio textbooks. “I carried my RFB tapes with me on all my journeys around the globe. I want you to know that I could not have succeeded without you.” There were few dry eyes in the audience when he ended his presentation. Afterwards, I made a point of introducing myself saying, “You are the first blind person of whom I am jealous.” I carried my RFB tapes with me on all my journeys around the globe. I want you to know that I could not have succeeded without you.” Later, we both became board members of the Arizona Unit. I often drove him and his guide dog to our meetings. Our relationship ended when he moved to Colorado in order to train for his planned climb of Mt. McKinley. I worried that he was taking on too big a challenge. He proved me and many others wrong. This was just a warm up. Erik later became the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest. This achievement helped make him become even more of a celebrity, appearing on many national TV shows. It came as no surprise that his marriage took place atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. Now the father of two children, he continues to be an adventurer and a motivational speaker. Whether it is climbing the tallest mountains on all five continents, leading blind or otherwise physically challenged people to reach new heights, he is always proving that so-called handicapped people can achieve great feats. Erik sets a high standard. I reached the heights in 2002 when the company from which I had retired awarded me a plaque commemorating my years of service to Learning Ally at their Volunteer of the Year award luncheon. Thank goodness, the recognition did not leave me speechless, and I continue to read textbooks. Erik appeared at a local high school on February 18, 2010, to show the movie that features him climbing Mt. Everest. Before leaving, I took the opportunity to speak with him. I said, “Hello, Erik, this is Joe.” “Joe! How are you? How are all the folks at the Phoenix studio?” We chatted about old times for a minute or so, and I introduced him to my wife, Angie, and my daughter, Carol. “Stay in touch,” he said as others came by to have their picture taken with him. I was moved by his gracious acknowledgment. With his legion of friends, he actually remembered me. I, of course, will never forget him. How could I? He remains the only blind person of whom I am jealous. -Joe Finnerty, Phoenix studio volunteer

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