Friendship grows from helping others

By Evan Pajer - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
Volunteers from the National Federation of the Blind assist students with a chemistry experiment. Photo courtesy of National Federation of the Blind. - Contributed Photo

Barbara Blejewski has been blind since birth, and has never been able to drive or read. Although she has adapted to her condition throughout her life, she said that it's not always that easy. “It's different for people who become blind later. It's a big adjustment that really depends on the person,” she said.

Fortunately, she decided to take advantage of a program where a sighted person volunteers to partner with a blind person to help them with the things they have difficulty doing alone. In doing so, she found a valuable friend, and both of them look forward to the times they spend together.

Blejewski was matched with a volunteer from a statewide volunteer agency known as the Bureau of Education Services for the Blind early last year. "I was by myself. I come from a big family, but everyone's got their own kids and stuff like that. I don't like to depend on them too much because they've got their own situation, so I try to be as independent as I can," she said.

Ultimately, Blejewski said she decided to get a volunteer. "I just thought it would be a better way to get things done, and that it would help me out. It's a double benefit, she gains and I gain from doing this. I had heard of other people working with the program and decided to apply," she said.

Since she was matched with her volunteer, Blejewski said that she has been able to get more things done. "We do a lot of writing and some reading," she said, "Or it can be that I have to go to a particular type of store to get something and it's far away. It makes it so things can be accomplished like anything else," she said.

Blejewski's volunteer has helped her with more than just driving and reading. "We also do fun things," she said. "We went to a Celtic concert at a library in Windsor last year and a holiday concert at Traveller's. It's fun to do things like that, I enjoy music." Blejewski said that over the past year, she and her volunteer have become close friends. "We've become good friends because we've gotten to know each other as people," she said.

As president of the Greater Hartford chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, which has a local headquarters in East Hartford, Blejewski said that finding flexible volunteers is a difficult task. "It's hard to find a volunteer that can do multiple things. Most volunteers just do one or two things - medical transportation or reading, but nothing else," she said.

Blejewski said that the volunteering needs for blind people are very individualized. "Volunteering done on a very individual basis," she said. "Some of them might be more amenable to working with a volunteer, others use their spouse. Some people are busy or their families are scattered geographically, that might make working with a volunteer more amenable."

Blejewski said that while technology can assist people who are blind, it isn't always an option. For instance, she said, computers can assist with reading in many cases, but cannot help with handwriting or websites that are not compatible with a text-to-speech program or those that use pictures. Another area of difficulty is tasks that require visual feedback. For day-to-day things, Blejewski said, technology can assist her, but not always.

"I have a talking color identifier and a money identifier for clothes and money," she said. "I also fold my money in different ways so I can know what denomination it is." For bigger decisions, Blejewski said she is usually forced to wait or rely on her volunteer. "One time, I needed to get window shades, and that would have been difficult to do because a person needs visual feedback," she said. "So my volunteer and I went and got them, and she helped me put them up. It might seem little to some people, but it really is a help."

Being blind also requires a person to constantly plan ahead, even for things most people take for granted. "You do things differently," Blejewski said. "You make a shopping list and as soon as something starts getting low you put on your list that you need to get more, because you can't just hop in the car and go." Blejewski said that for many decisions, she is sometimes forced to wait for someone to help her. "It's sort of prioritizing, which things my volunteer can help me with that I can't get done any other way. If I can get it done one way, I'll do it that way. You do whatever works - some people have some sight and that helps them, but if they don't you learn other ways to do things."

Another issue for blind people is getting places. Blejewski said that while there is transit available for visits to doctors and some other things, it is not always an easy thing to come by. "There's Paratransit and things you can use to get to doctors and such," she said. "For emergencies though, that's when not being able to drive is a pain. Sometimes you can work something out, but you can get a friend or something to help you out, or take a taxi. You do what you've got to do to manage that." Blejewski said that her volunteer has helped her get around her transportation issues. "One day, I had to take a vacuum cleaner to get repaired, and that would have been hard to get on public transportation," she said. "With my volunteer, it was not a problem."

Blejewski said that members of her organization have also given back to their communities by volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Rocky Hill. "It's a good example of a volunteer opportunity where blind people can help," she said. "It's a way for them to give back to the community."

Blejewski said there are three main ways people who are interested in volunteering for the blind can help - either by contacting the Bureau of Education Services for the Blind Volunteer Program at 860-602-4129 or the National Federation of the Blind at 860-289-1971. Most services are run out of the Bureau of Education Services, Blejewski said, but she often coordinates with them to find members of her organization who need volunteer assistance.

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