Art Pearson was depressed. The 92-year-old suffered from macular degeneration and is legally blind. “Even pouring water into a glass was hard,” says Pearson, who lives alone. So, when a friend recommended Lighthouse of Collier Inc., a non-profit that offers programs that foster independence and enhance the quality of life for the blind, visually impaired and their caregivers, Pearson decided to give it a shot. “Kathleen Peck saved me,” he says. “The program turned my life around.”
Peck is the volunteer executive director of Lighthouse and a broker-associate with All in One Realty Group in Naples, Fla. She’s also blind. “In July 2006, I suddenly lost my eyesight to a rare eye disease,” she says. A year later — seeking support for her condition — Peck attended a group meeting at a community center. “Support for the blind was lacking in our community,” she says.
A leadership council was formed to research the idea of creating a nonprofit. “It was a diverse group of 16 individuals—visually impaired and sighted,” says Peck. The group quickly discovered that there were an estimated 14,000 individuals in Collier County who needed services that weren’t being offered. It took two years of meetings, organizing, fundraising and hard work before Lighthouse opened its doors in 2009. And Peck was the driving force behind it all—singlehandedly raising a majority of the money necessary to open the Lighthouse doors.
“It’s because of Kathleen’s drive that we were able to do what’s been tried several times before, but failed. It’s challenging, so it’s so easy to give up, but Kathleen is relentless and passionate,” says Bill Mercer, the volunteer director of operations for Lighthouse and a close friend of Peck’s.
As with any charity, raising money is always a challenge. So Peck built a marketing packet based on her real estate marketing presentations, and the team rallied, visiting friends and asking for money. They raised some $200,000 to get the program off the ground. Then, a friend asked Peck if she would consider an “ask” campaign. “It’s a very targeted campaign where each year you send a handwritten letter to certain friends,” she says.
The first year, in 2010, they raised $16,000. The second year, they raised $25,000. “We’re on our third year, and we have a goal of $45,000,” she says. Lighthouse was recently awarded a grant to serve blind adults. “We’ve been aggressively trying to raise money for the children too,” she says.
It was during the early fundraising campaign that a local developer, Bayfront, donated office space for Lighthouse. Peck is currently working on a capital campaign in order to have a more permanent home.
Through that office, Lighthouse of Collier County offers free classes in independent living skills, an orientation/ability training class (how to navigate with a support cane or guided dog), an assisted technology class (how to use technology to read), a class for caregivers, and an annual children’s camp. The independent living skills class alone serves at least 60 people a year and offers them strategies for managing everyday tasks. “After the class, a vision rehab therapist comes to each student’s home and installs bump dots [small, clear raised dots that help the visually impaired identify on/off switches and letters on a keyboard] on appliances so they can navigate,” Peck says.
Lighthouse’s four-week-long day camp for children 4-14 years old is held every summer in donated space at the Naples Beach Hotel. “We partner with other non-profits for field trips, such as the Naples Equestrian Challenge, which provides therapeutic horseback riding,” Peck says.
Sarah Hardwig, age 9, was one of the very first campers. Due to a genetic disorder, Sarah has been legally blind since birth. “Kathleen reached out to us through Sarah’s school,” says Sarah’s father, Greg. “The camp helps Sarah realize that there are others out there like her, and it teaches her daily living skills.”
One of Sarah’s favorite camp activities is tennis. (Yes, you read that right — tennis!) “I read about this person in Japan who invented an audible tennis ball [called Soundball Tennis],” Peck says. “So, I found a way to get it and worked with a local tennis center to have some of the pros teach the children how to play.” For Sarah, it was a totally invigorating experience. “She had heard tennis on TV, but this was different. It did wonders for her confidence,” her father says.
Part of the goal is to provide the kind of support that comes by meeting others who have similar challenges. “We offer a monthly event on Saturdays where blind and visually impaired children can meet others and the parents can network and share experiences,” says Peck. “It’s a way to empower both the children and parents and help them realize they’re not alone.”
For Peck, Lighthouse has helped her as much as it has others. “The assisted-technology class helped me figure out how to use a combination of tools so that I can still do business,” says Peck, who — despite her disability — still works with past clients. “Naples has a lot of out-of-town buyers, and most of them want a real estate agent who can drive them around. Obviously, I can’t do that. But, a lot of my past clients insist they want me and are willing to drive me around,” laughs Peck.
In addition to her real estate career, she’s working up to 60 hours a week on outreach and fundraising for the growing charity. Since its inception in 2009, Lighthouse has helped more than 300 visually impaired adults and children, as well as their families and caregivers and involves more than 100 volunteers.
“It means so much to know we’ve touched so many people — both sighted and visually impaired,” she says. “We’re providing services for those who need them and deserve them. These are people who feel they can’t even go into a restaurant anymore, and we’re giving them the strategies they need to go out into the world and live a normal life. It just feels good.”