By Carol Goar
Every year 250,000 Canadians retire from the workforce. Over the next decade the exodus will swell to 400,000 a year, creating an unprecedented pool of potential volunteers.
Most will end up in fundraising, organizing, doing administrative work or sitting on boards. For those who want to serve more directly, one of the rewarding ways to make a difference is to become a “Vision Mate.” You share your eyesight with a person who is blind or partially sighted. You might read, go for walks, assist with errands or just visit. The training is minimal. The time commitment – about eight hours a month – is manageable.
Best of all, both partners learn. The volunteer gains an appreciation of the skill and determination it takes to live independently with vision loss. The client, selected by CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind), gains confidence as his or her range of activities expands.
The job is ideally suited to a mature volunteer. It requires empathy, patience, reliability, good organization and strong communication skills.
Shortly after retiring last May, I applied to CNIB to be a Vision Mate. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I met Verna Letourneau, the client with whom I’d been matched by David Wallis, a regional coordinator of volunteer services for CNIB. He’d given me a thumbnail sketch of my newly-assigned partner: She had limited vision, a strong desire to remain independent, a guide dog named Buster, and lots of get-up-and-go. He suggested we start with a walk in the neighbourhood.
I phoned Verna to set up my first visit and found her friendly, eager to have a Vision Mate and open about her vision loss.
She was waiting at the door when I rang the bell. She welcomed me so warmly I knew we’d quickly become friends.
Because it was a muggy September day, we agreed to relax and get to know each other before taking our walk. I also wanted to make sure Verna was comfortable sharing her story with a wider audience.
I needn’t have worried. Her face lit up at the prospect. (I was a newspaper writer for 40 years.)
Verna is a tiny 77-year-old dynamo. A corneal ulcer left her blind in her right eye 58 years ago. She has partial vision in her left eye – it varies from day to day – following cataract surgery in 2005.
But none of that has slowed her down. She’s held a variety of jobs over the course of her life, from nursing assistant to operator of a small mixed farm. She’s still a market gardener, selling the plants she grows. She has a magnificent garden, a greenhouse and a potting centre. But that is only one activity. Every weekday morning, she goes to Brantford’s Adult Recreation Therapy Centre for exercise, arts and crafts, storytelling and conversation.
“I’ve always been outgoing,” she says. “I like being with people.”
For Verna, the best thing about having a vision mate is having a steady companion, someone she can confide in. We talk about her challenges, triumphs and fears, celebrate special occasions and enjoy our deepening friendship. She phones to update me between visits.
Buster, Verna’s five-year-old chocolate lab, is always with us. He’s comfortable with me, but he’s 100 per cent Verna’s dog. When she gives him a command, he obeys. When she puts on his guide dog harness, he’s all business; guiding, protecting, steering her around hazards, keeping her safe. Buster has been with Verna for five years. She trusts him implicitly. He guards her gently and surely.
Barely a month into my new role, I can’t imagine post-employment life without Verna and Buster.
Learn more about volunteering for CNIB and our Vision Mate program here, or call CNIB on telephone 1-800-563-2642.