John Humpal teaches creative writing for the Lighthouse of Pinellas, a nonprofit group that offers services to the blind and sight-impaired.
As his students started turning in papers last fall, he realized the writing was special.
"I started thinking: These people have some pretty good stories," said Humpal, a self-help author. "After reading three or four of them, I thought, these would make a good book. People don't understand what it's like to live blind. You have to change your way of life."
And so In-Sight, a book of short stories and poems by the blind and sight-impaired students, was born. The nearly yearlong project turned into a 213-page, large-print book that was published in June.
It is filled with contributions from about a dozen students, who wrote about everything from happy childhood memories and first jobs to living through the Great Depression and coping with their sight issues.
Like two of his students, Humpal is blind. But the 69-year-old Largo resident doesn't let it stop him from enjoying simple pleasures such as walking. He hikes along busy streets like Nursery Road every day.
Some of the authors prove that a challenge like lost or limited vision doesn't have to squelch a sense of humor.
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Cremative Writing (an excerpt, p. 154) Russ Zurkan
We started this class a long time ago,
What we were getting into we didn't know.
Our instructor told us we would get better,
But a few of us still can't write a letter …
Well class, after three years we finally succeeded,
We've written some stuff and can't even read it.
• • •
The mission of Lighthouse of Pinellas, located on 112th Circle N in Largo, is printed on the back of In-Sight:
"To advance the independence, opportunities and quality of life for the more than 40,000 people in Pinellas County who are blind or visually impaired."
It's a mission accomplished as far as Ida Schwerzel, 94, of Clearwater is concerned.
"The teachers are wonderful; the volunteers are terrific," she said. "You socialize, you learn how to cope, it has so many advantages.
"Whereas if you were home, you'd feel sorry for yourself. It gives us a way to cope in our lives."
• • •
It Happens to All of Us (p. 80) Ida Schwerzel
There is no escaping it. Sooner or later, it will catch up to us. … It is called aging … don't ignore or pretend you don't see us. All we ask for is a smile or a friendly 'Hello' or even a gentle touch.
• • •
Schwerzel lost most of her sight after a cataract operation. After three surgeries, she still has partial, close-up vision in her right eye.
Fellow student Lucille Gradel, 79, of Crystal Beach has partial sight due to macular degeneration.
So how do students with vision problems write, anyway? Gradel said it's tricky, but worth the trouble. "I write and as long as I don't lift up the pen to stop writing, I'm okay," she said.
Schwerzel also manages with just limited vision in one eye.
"You know you say miracles don't happen," she said. "I can't write a check but (when) I'm writing a story I get the book with the lines. I can write on those lines."
Several other students use customized computers or get help from relatives or friends.
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Visually Impaired (p. 170, an excerpt) Russ Zurkan
People with glaucoma, cataracts or degeneration,
Wear eyeglasses or contacts in sheer desperation.
All races and ages often become visually afflicted,
They use so many eye drops they become addicted.
But they learn to live good lives with good attitudes,
Those in this school live their lives in happier moods.
They are thankful for the blessings they've been bestowed,
And they want to do it themselves, if not pushed or towed.
• • •
Despite publishing the book and other successful programs, Lighthouse of Pinellas needs help, Gradel and others said.
"We really need more volunteers for teaching," Gradel said. "The music appreciation teacher died, and they never replaced him."
The organization is looking at a $60,000 budget deficit entering the last quarter of its fiscal year and the organization would like to raise $10,000 before the end of August.
Not enough people know about the Lighthouse, Schwerzel added. Her doctor told her about the services. But she worries others just don't know they're available.
"Not every doctor or nursing home is familiar with the fact that there is aid for people like us," she said.
Gradel hopes the book sales will help Lighthouse financially and also assist people like her learn that help is out there.
"Maybe people will pick one up and say, 'Gee I know somebody who could go to that school.' "