Sylvia Stinson Perez strolled confidently down a hallway, looked me in the eye and reached out for a firm handshake.
This came as some surprise, since I'd been told she can't see. I'd also been told she is the perfect choice to run the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind in Pasco and Hernando counties. And that she has quite a sense of humor.
So I mentioned that my friends say I look like a young Cary Grant.
Ha ha. No reaction.
Soon, it became clear I just picked the wrong movie star. When photographer Brendan Fitterer joined in the fun and claimed a resemblance to George Clooney … well, let's just say things got a bit animated.
"George Clooney!'' she squawked. "Now we're talking.''
Perez's vision has deteriorated over her 39 years because of retinitis pigmentosa (a hereditary degenerative disease of the eye that begins with night blindness, moves to tunnel vision and, sometimes, leads to blindness), but technology allows her opportunities to view enlargements of print and, say, a photo of George Clooney (square jaw, I admit, but no Cary Grant).
She describes her disability like this: Put a straw to your eyeball. The object you see at the end is two football fields away. "Don't really do the straw thing,'' she said. "We have enough clients.''
Truth be told, she was kidding about that, too. If Perez has her way, she will reach out to every visually impaired person in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties and get them services and equipment to make their lives easier.
Perez took over the local Lighthouse in July after 10 years with the Miami Lighthouse, where she was director of services. She inherited an agency that had struggled with morale problems and allegations of fiscal mismanagement, but she didn't say much about that during our visit. Instead, she noted a positive audit that just arrived and looked forward to starting a program next Saturday, helping teens 14 to 19 begin their transition from high school to college and the workforce.
This is what Joyce Hildreth, the director of the state Division of Blind Services, said about Perez: "She has already made great strides in her new job, reaching out to the community. I see her agency becoming a trendsetter in the state because of her strength, experience and commitment.
"Sylvia walks the walk.''
Hildreth, 61, could easily be describing herself. She ran the Orlando Lighthouse before recently taking on the top state job. She, too, has retinitis pigmentosa, and six years ago her sight deteriorated to the point that she needed a guide dog.
Perez figures a dog is likely in her future, although she worries about her allergies. Meanwhile, she uses a white cane as she navigates her walk home after work in New Port Richey. She has learned how to cross busy Ridge Road and use the sidewalk that runs in front of Chasco Middle School, turning at Lemon Road to her neighborhood where she lives with husband, Roger, a lawyer, and their 9-year-old daughter, Olivia.
What courage it must take to even step off a curb, much less tap a cane across a busy road. But the more you learn about this woman, the more you understand why Hildreth has such high expectations for our Lighthouse.
Perez was born in Monticello with this disability. She never saw a chalkboard in school, but learned to listen well. She learned how children can be cruel, how isolated you can feel when you're different. "The world underestimates people who can't see,'' she said.
At Florida State University, she worked at the juvenile justice clinic with Roger Perez, a fellow student who became her friend. "I pretended well,'' she recalled. "He didn't know I couldn't see for a long time.''
She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in social work, married Roger and moved to Miami. Soon, she will get a second master's from FSU, in visual disabilities.
In 1996, a nonprofit called Shake-A-Leg, which helps disabled people experience new challenges, selected Perez for a sailing regatta in England. "We crashed,'' she said with a grin, "into another boat. China won. But it was great fun.''
The she allowed this: "Oh, we weren't all blind.''
She has been a guest on a TV program called Cooking Without Looking, in which blind people show off their expertise in the kitchen. She prepared spinach lasagna. "When I have time, I'm a great cook.''
She was among 20 women in the Miami area selected for a project called Raw Beauty. A team of photographers captured the women, all disabled in some way, in an innovative project that demonstrated their beauty, strength and confidence.
Since moving here, Perez has joined Leadership Pasco, accepted a position on the Governor's Rehabilitation Council for the Blind and a state emergency operations task force.
And just for good measure, she agreed to sit on the advisory council at her daughter's school, Calusa Elementary.
Every now and then, she says, she allows herself a "blind day.''
"You have moments when you feel sorry for yourself, when you're reminded you can't see. I usually shake it off. I can't be selfish. I impact lives. I have to keep going. It's important.
"But being blind takes so much energy. By 5 o'clock, I'm wiped out. You're always thinking ahead — how am I going to do that? But somehow you find a way.''
Our Lighthouse turns 25 in October. It seems to be in good hands.