I sat at a white linen circular table in the Tampa Club, beautifully set with two types of forks and knives and a spoon above each plate. A dining menu was tucked into a neatly folded napkin and a glass filled with water sat on my left.
But the most interesting part of the table setting? A black blindfold wrapped in plastic packaging.
For the third consecutive year, the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind hosted Dining in the Dark on Oct. 7 to give guests a sense of the challenges the visually impaired face on a regular basis.
From the very beginning, I was nervous about what my editor had talked me into doing. He offered the assignment with no details, asking me to accept it "sight unseen."
Ha, Ha. Not so funny.
Dinner guests, including myself, secured the blindfold over our eyes for the unseen dinner experience. While blindfolded, I could feel the overwhelming sense of isolation and claustrophobia creeping through. I never failed to have the urge to laugh every time I brought a fork full of vegetables to my cheek. The food eventually making its way to my mouth only for me to discover it wasn't the Green Peppercorn Seared Salmon I'd craved.
I occasionally put an unsatisfying mouthful of air and unknowingly dropped a good portion of my salad in my napkin-covered lap.
My sense of taste was more sensitive than usual, the tangy sweetness of the sorbet and the overwhelming amount of spices in my salmon engulfed my taste buds.
There were multiple times I clinked my silverware against my dishware to see if there was any food left on my plate.
The only tell that my food was taken by a waiter or put in front of me was the savory smells — and even then, I still found myself trying to scoop up food in the empty space.
Trying to keep track of everything I noticed while blindfolded, I jotted down notes occasionally in my tattered reporter's notebook. My effort proved to be pointless as most my notes were scribbled over with other notes and smeared with garlic mashed potatoes that I couldn't even tell you how they got there.
My sight was gone, but my senses were amplified. Lighthearted and fun conversations ensued at all the tables. I made a mental note of my tablemates and where they were sitting in relation to me using the clock face analogy found in my dining instruction pamphlet. I decided to call myself six with McKenna Murphy, the featured speaker, on my right as five.
Just at three on my clock analogy sat Sue Glaser, transition program director for Lighthouse for the Blind, helping to guide everyone at the table and giving us helpful hints to make it through our dinner unstained.
The event helps fund the nonprofit's programs in Hardee, Hillsborough and Polk counties.
Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind offers rehabilitation programs, a transition program for blind and visually impaired teens and vocational programs. Their main mission: making sure blind individuals can live independent and successful lives.
Murphy, a former transition program teen, shared with attendees her own struggles with a visual impairment and how the nonprofit helped her overcome. She has since graduated from the University of North Florida and continues her involvement with the program.
"The program gives you the opportunity to fail, so you can learn and know what you're doing in real life," Murphy said.
WFLA-Ch. 8's Paul Mueller sat to my left at seven. Directly beside him sat Sheryl Brown, the brains behind the event and executive director of Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind.
Dining in the Dark received funding from various sources that goes toward making free services available to blind individuals.
"We don't want to charge them for services in a time of need," Brown said. "We appreciate the support from the community and those in attendance."
Dining in the Dark can't begin to emulate the true challenges for the blind, but it walks you through a small portion of everyday living training received from the nonprofit. Each attendee received an experience that expanded our minds to the struggles the blind face on a daily basis that we cannot begin to know or completely understand.
Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind's programs offer opportunities to help make those struggles easier, and allows the visually impaired to maximize their own independence.