CommunityHamil R. Harris

Blind Residents in DMV Cope Amid Pandemic

Larry Brown and Tawanda Lee, a Southeast couple, said the best part of their support group is greeting all of their friends at the start of the bimonthly meetings, particularly amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“As soon as I get inside, I am hugging everybody,” said Brown, 65.

His heartfelt sentiments were mirrored by Lee: “When I get there, it’s ‘How is everybody doing?’ and hugs.”

Brown said he is a charter member of the Circle of Friends, which is made up of partially and totally blind people who have been forced to worship on their computers since the novel coronavirus spread across the country.

Brown and Lee spent most of their time at home these days. Lee said the hardest times come when they have to venture out for groceries or run errands because of the schedule to transport people who are blind or have disabilities.

“I had to change my phone and I had to stand in line outside the store and then when I got inside, they inflated the prices,” said Brown, who nevertheless feels blessed to not have to go too far from home. “In this house I have everything that I need — cable TV, a laptop and my cellphone.”

There are about 60,000 people in the Washington area who are legally blind, visually impaired or deaf and blind, according to the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, which serves several thousand annually and runs the Circle of Friends group. Next month, the organization will celebrate its 120th anniversary.

“We are one of the only agencies in the who serve the deaf and blind community,” said Columbia President Tony Cancelosi.

He said despite the pandemic and subsequent social distancing, there is still a level of engagement with those they serve, but things have changed.

“Instead of coming into our offices, they are hearing from others,” Cancelosi said. “Normally people come in for mobility training, but now we are teaching mobility training via Zoom.”

“My biggest concern is that people don’t know that people with disabilities don’t know where to get help,” he said. “We call them because there is that fear of isolation and loneliness.”

One of Columbia’s most interesting programs is the Circle of Friends, which is made up of about 100 people from D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

“It simple our clients say we know that you are there because we talk to you,” Cancelosi said.

Shawn Callaway, 47, who is also blind, is the group facilitator for the Circle of Friends. He said his main concern is for blind people who work as vendors in federal buildings who are not getting the foot traffic.

“It has been hell,” Callaway said. “People are being told to stay home and as a result you have to deal with a combination of things. The main thing is that I talk to people about remaining active, getting fresh air and avoiding isolation.”

Bobby and Linda Bobo of Olney, Maryland, are well-known by the staff and clients at the Columbia Lighthouse. Linda works for the government and Bobby, 74, is a singer.

“Whether you are in the room or on Zoom, you need to think about what God has given you,” Bobby, who likes to sing lead at the Olney Church of Christ, said during a phone interview. “It’s all about creativity and using what God has given you.”

Linda Bobo said she is glad that she got the computer she needed before many things were shut down. For groceries, she gets what they need through Giant’s Peapod delivery service, other services and friends.

“We have been blessed to have an active and loving church family,” said Linda, a musician who plays the piano and accompanied her husband when they had a concert at Leisure World.

Before he got off the phone, Bobby Bobo sang a verse of one of his favorite songs, “Farther Along.”

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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