Nancy Watters is proud to be a Lion, and it shows. On a warm Monday in February, she opened the door to her home in the Great Neck neighborhood of Virginia Beach wearing a blue polo shirt embroidered with the words Lion Nancy. As she poured tea, a gold lion pendant around her neck glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window. A devoted Lion, down to every last detail.
Lions Club International was founded in 1917 and is most known for supporting the blind and visually impaired. Helen Keller, an early advocate for people with disabilities who was herself both blind and deaf, addressed the organization in 1925 at their annual convention and challenged them to be “Knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”
The Lions accepted her challenge, but did not stop there. They are involved in numerous civic and humanitarian efforts around the world, including literacy programs, diabetes awareness, and hunger relief, just to name a few.
In 1987 the group opened up membership to women, and today women are involved at all levels of the organization. Let’s meet three Tidewater women who have taken the Lions Club’s motto of “We serve” to heart.
AN EYE TO THE FUTURE
Nancy credits her involvement in the Lions Club to her second husband, John, a retired ophthalmologist and Air Force veteran. The couple married in 2005, and both are active members of the Thalia Lions Club. Together they brought a revolutionary new device to the area, the Spot™ vision screener.
Unlike the standard eye chart made up of rows of numbers and letters, the vision screener does not require the person being screened to read or even speak, making it ideal for assessing the vision of young children. “The screener can be used on just about everyone, from a six-month-old infant to a senior citizen,” Nancy explained. “And it only takes a few seconds for the results.”
Nancy enthusiastically described how to use the vision screener, which resembles a camera, and even offered a demonstration. The screen facing me displayed a burst of colorful pixels and emitted a chirping sound. “I always ask the kids if they can hear the bird,” Nancy said, laughing. She instructed me to look forward and within seconds the device had assessed my eyes. Since I was not wearing my glasses during the screening, the device showed I had a slight visual impairment and recommended I visit an ophthalmologist.
Nancy has screened thousands of children, but one little boy in particular lingers in her memory. The Lions conducted a vision screening at a preschool, and one of the children proved particularly difficult to screen.
“He was all over the place, reaching and grabbing for everything,” Nancy recounted. “He kept shouting ‘ya-ya!’ and I finally realized he was trying to say ‘yellow.’ I grabbed a yellow block and put it on top of the device, and he held still long enough for us to do the screening. It turns out his vision was so poor he could only see things that were bright yellow.”
Before she retired, Nancy worked as a teacher and is passionate about encouraging children to read. She serves on her Lions Club’s Reading Action Program committee and is dedicated to increasing literacy rates for local children. She loves visiting classes and reading to students.
“At that age children are like little sponges,” Nancy said. “They are waiting for attention, and I do my best to make the readings as interactive as possible.” One tactic Nancy uses is to read almost to the end of a sentence and then let the children shout out the last word. “I also do the character voices as best I can,” she added with a laugh.
Nancy knows that vision and literacy go hand in hand. “If you can’t see well and no one notices, chances are you aren’t going to do well in school,” she explained. “If we can get kids screened and address vision problems early, kids have a chance to do better in the classroom.”
Since 2010 local Lions Clubs have performed vision screenings on 60,000 children and donated more than 12,000 books to kids in need. It is Nancy’s hope that excitement for their projects will encourage new members, both men and women. “When I joined my club there were only two other women,” she said. “Now about a third of our members are women. Our female members have rejuvenated our efforts, and in my opinion they’re the best thing that has ever happened to our club.”
A DREAM REALIZED
Irene Conlin’s entire life changed when her second child, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with septo-optic dysplasia as an infant. The rare syndrome affects the development of the optic nerves in the eyes and, in Elizabeth’s case, caused her to lose her sight. “I had a perfect pregnancy,” Irene said. “When the doctor told me my baby was blind, I didn’t want to believe it.”
Irene did everything she could to make sure Elizabeth enjoyed a regular childhood along with her three siblings. Easter egg hunts, however, proved difficult to modify. “We tried ringing a bell next to an egg, and we also tried guiding Elizabeth with our voices,” Irene said, “but it just wasn’t the same.”
Then Irene connected with the Virginia Beach Police Department Bomb Squad. The bomb squad devised an Easter egg that beeped, making it possible for low-vision and blind children to scout for eggs with their ears, rather than their eyes. The eggs look like any other Easter egg, but inside each is a battery connected to several wires. Flipping a black switch on the outside of the egg results in a steady beeping sound.
A week before Easter 2010, Irene and Elizabeth stood arm in arm at the edge of Bayville Farms Park near Shore Drive in Virginia Beach. A cold wind whipped through the tree branches above them and gray skies threatened rain, but nothing could dampen Irene’s excitement. For the first time in her life, sixteen-year-old Elizabeth would be able to join her friends for an Easter egg hunt.
“It was so amazing to be a witness to that first audible Easter egg hunt,” Irene said. “Hunting for eggs at Easter is a rite of passage for every child, and I thank God Elizabeth was finally able to know what it truly meant to do the hunt on her own.”
Organizing the audible Easter egg hunt put Irene in touch with the Thalia Lions Club. She was drawn to the group’s commitment to volunteerism and its support of the low-vision and blind community. She became a member and currently serves as the group’s president. “Being a Lion gives you the opportunity to serve in any way you see fit,” she said. “No matter what project gets you excited, the Lions will offer their support.”
Irene and Elizabeth continue to volunteer at the audible Easter egg hunt every spring. Elizabeth runs the prize booth, exchanging eggs for noisemakers or candy. She also delights in taking her turn to hunt for eggs after the children have had their chance. When she turned 18, Elizabeth joined the Virginia Beach Town Center - Blind Lions Club, of which half of the members are blind or have vision impairments.
Elizabeth is currently enrolled in a program in Richmond where she is learning life and work skills from instructors, some of whom are also blind. She is considering a career working with children or as a telephone dispatcher. Irene is proud of her daughter’s independence and her willingness to serve others through volunteering. “As a Lion, Elizabeth has many strong examples of all that she can accomplish in her life,” Irene said.
A HELPING HAND
Beth Stevens’ vision loss at the age of 28 was abrupt and unexpected. She wore glasses and thought she merely needed a new prescription, but when the doctor told her she was already legally blind in her left eye, she was shocked. Beth visited several different doctors, and none could explain why her retinas were deteriorating.
“It was like falling off a cliff,” Beth said. “I had to give up the life I had planned for the life I was meant to have.”
Beth’s father had passed away only a year and a half before she began losing her sight, and she was reluctant to tell her family what was happening. “I hid my vision loss for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t want to use a white cane because then I would be identified as a blind person.”
Beth’s aha moment came when she attended a Jaycees national convention in St. Louis. She was still struggling to accept her vision loss and refused to use a cane. She and a group of friends were seated hundreds of steps up in a huge stadium when everyone decided to get up and go to lunch.
“No one realized how low-vision I was,” Beth explained. “Everyone took off and I was left to make my way down alone. There was no railing and I couldn’t see the steps.” A man noticed Beth’s hesitation and came over to offer assistance.
“I still don’t think he has circulation in his arm because I clutched it so hard,” Beth joked. When she returned home to Virginia Beach, she knew she needed to get training so she could live her life as independently as possible. Beth then completed the vision rehabilitation training, including how to use a white cane, before returning to work.
In her quest for local low-vision resources, Beth learned about the Virginia Beach Town Center - Blind Lions Club. She sought assistance to sponsor a Descriptive Movie Awareness project, which allows those who are blind or have low vision to enjoy movies by using a headset to listen to a spoken description of what is taking place on the screen. “I came to them as an outsider and they took action,” Beth said. “They responded without hesitation, and that’s what’s amazing about the Lions. They are so responsive to the needs of the local community.”
Service to others has always been an important part of Beth’s life. She met her husband, Mack, through volunteer work with the Jaycees. In 2010, she and Mack joined the Lions and jumped right into volunteering with the group. Mack is an instructor at the Landstown Governor’s STEM and Technology Academy, and his class created the second batch of beeping eggs for the audible Easter egg hunt Irene organized. Right now Beth and Mack have about 200 eggs in storage in their guest bedroom. “We have learned that if you bump into the boxes, it sets off the eggs,” Beth said, laughing. “And then Mack is the one who has to find the one that’s beeping and turn it off!”
Beth wants others to know that a productive life, including volunteering in the community, is possible after vision loss. She developed a training program to teach others how to aid someone with visual impairments and has helped train hundreds of staff at local movie theaters, the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, the Virginia Beach Public Library, and Delta Gamma Fraternity members Eta Tau Chapter at Christopher Newport University. Those who are interested in a firsthand experience can also wear low-vision simulator goggles to learn what it’s like to live with vision problems.
Currently Beth serves as 2nd Vice District Governor of District 24-D and hopes to be elected District Governor in 2017, the year the Lions will celebrate their 100th anniversary. She is excited about helping guide the Lions Clubs of Southeastern Virginia into their next century of service. “Imagine what a better place the world would be if we could all turn to someone less fortunate than ourselves to offer a helping hand,” she said.
To learn more about Lions Clubs in Hampton Roads, visit: http://lions-of-virginia-24d.org.
Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. For more information, visit www.mcallisterwe.com.