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Blinded during vicious attack, man pursues his culinary dream

When Anthony Blakely put lamb shanks on a flat-top grill in the kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay last week, the sizzling sound and enticing aroma instantly brought back visions of his past work as a chef.

But Blakely can rely only on sound, smell and memories because an attacker took his sight in a crime so horrific it's almost unspeakable. The face of his attacker remains the last image he remembers seeing, but he remarkably focuses more on his future than his past.

And thanks to a unique training program, Blakely actually may achieve the dream of restoring his culinary artistry.

Creative pursuits have always driven Blakely, who lived in St. Petersburg for more than 15 years before returning to Jacksonville in the mid 2000s. He's worked as a chef and disc jockey, holds a degree in graphic design and also dabbled in filmmaking.

On the night of July 4, 2008, Blakely was working as a disc jockey in Jacksonville when a dispute arose between him and the boyfriend of a woman who was upset that he didn't have a song she requested.

The argument turned violent and the boyfriend beat Blakely unconscious. A man found Blakely's body in a pool of blood as night turned to morning, his eyes sliced from his sockets.

Police eventually arrested Foster Rayfield Leon, whom the Florida Times-Union described as a 6-foot, 300-pound career criminal. He had fled to New Orleans with the girlfriend. Blakely testified at the 2010 trial, removing his sunglasses to reveal his empty eye sockets.

The jury convicted Leon of kidnapping and attempted second-degree murder. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Some would say Blakely, 42, also received a life sentence — a life without sight. But he strives to conquer the challenges.

"There's still a little bit of fear, but I've overcome a lot of it," Blakely said. "I'm not afraid to be alone, but sometimes getting into a shower is a little unnerving. Sometimes I think someone is in there. I think it's him.

"But honestly, I don't have a problem with being left alone. I'm a grown man and I do my thing. I'm still doing my thing."

Hands On Eduction has given Blakely a big assist in doing his own thing. The Tampa-based hospitality training program started at the Grand Hyatt in 1998, offering people with physical disabilities or learning disabilities the chance to earn a state food-preparation certificate through a two-week course.

Funded by state agencies such as the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the Division of Blind Services, the goal is to help graduates gain meaningful employment.

Its success expanded to other Hyatt hotels, but the program never had a person who was fully blind — until Blakely.

Working with job coach James Cirnigliaro, a Hands On Education graduate, Blakely impressed workers at the Hyatt. He spent his first few days in food prep, cutting and dicing fruits and vegetables.

"My expectations were blown away tenfold," Cirnigliaro said.

Eventually, they allowed him to handle the lamb shanks, prepare mirepoix, a fish stock, and craft a topping for Australian sea bass.

"The only way to see if somebody can run with the ball is hand it to him," program director John Ficca said. "He's running with it fine."

Blakely completed the program last week, and now hopes to own his own establishment. He can recall, as a 9-year-old, watching a blind man run his own deli when his father was stationed at a naval base in Philadelphia, and he's sure he could do the same.

"I'm not looking for a pat on the back," Blakely said. "I just miss doing it. I enjoy doing it and I'd like to think I'm good at it. … That's why I'm on fire about trying to get my own establishment.

"Something in my mind tells me there's going to be a brighter tomorrow, and I'm going to work on that."

The fact that Blakely's fire still burns bright should not just make us thankful on this day, it should make us more thankful.

That's all I'm saying.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this column.

Blinded during vicious attack, man pursues his culinary dream 11/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 9:57pm]
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