Opportunity Knocks

How an eye disorder led to new career

By Jessica Laskey
June 2021

Debra Celiz was not in the best spirits when she returned to Sacramento in 2013 after 45 years in San Francisco.

In the midst of a busy career in health care administration, Celiz was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disorder. There’s no cure. Patients gradually lose peripheral vision. Celiz decided to move back to her hometown to be closer to family as she figured out how to live with declining eyesight.

A visit to the NorthState Assistive Technology store run by the Society for the Blind changed her life. An employee suggested she meet Shane Snyder, an instructor for the society’s Senior IMPACT Project, which teaches alternative non-visual techniques to individuals 55 and older and helps maintain their independence. Celiz attended an eight-day retreat and emerged empowered, determined to help others like herself.

The instructors “showed me that being blind wasn’t a dead end, but a fabulous beginning,” Celiz says. She began to volunteer in earnest, speaking at visitor breakfasts and lunches, and doing outreach at senior centers, nursing homes and health fairs. (You may remember an Inside article about her volunteerism from 2015.)

In 2018, a Senior IMPACT instructor position opened. Her mentors encouraged her to apply, but Celiz felt she wasn’t qualified. Thankfully, her supporters prevailed. After a rigorous interview process, Celiz was hired into the position that made such a difference in her life five years earlier.

“I’ve truly come full circle. I’m working with the people who changed my life,” Celiz says. “Working with people you have so much respect for is so rewarding. I couldn’t imagine a better job.”

Celiz leads classes on mobility, technology, Braille and the grief process, and helps with program retreats. “A lot of emotions come up as you’re learning to be more independent,” she says. “There’s truly a bond (formed in those retreats). Being part of that, even if it only inspires one person, means I’ve done my job.”

In addition to serving seniors through the IMPACT project, Society for the Blind provides resources across 27 Northern California counties for people who are blind or have low vision. It hosts classes—now mostly via Zoom—on orientation and mobility, independent living, computers and assistive technology, and Braille literacy, plus workshops and support groups for clients and families. The organization runs the NorthState Assistive Technology retail store, a place full of what Celiz calls “amazing gadgets of all kinds,” and the Low Vision Clinic, one of the oldest community-based eye clinics in the region.

Like many nonprofits, the society relies on donations. Pre-pandemic, it partnered with local groups on fundraising events, such as the twice-yearly Concerts for Life at Harlow’s sponsored by East Sac Baby Boomers. (Several of Celiz’s former Sacramento High classmates, including Boomers President Stuart Walthall, founded the club to raise money for local causes. When Celiz sought help for IMPACT, they obliged.)

Though the pandemic put events on hold, Celiz says the society has continued to serve more than 6,000 people.
“Our executive director, Shari Roeseler, is amazing,” Celiz says. “Among her, (Director of Senior Programs) Pat Duffy and (Director of Programs) Shane Snyder, everyone pulled together so we didn’t miss a beat. I really love these people—they haven’t let up for one minute. The Society for the Blind is a little piece of heaven.”

To refer a friend or family member to the Senior IMPACT Program, email sip@societyfortheblind.org or call (916) 889-7516. For more information, visit societyfortheblind.org.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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