Bringing dignity to Panama’s blind

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The maxim that a prophet is not recognized in his own country seems to be holding true in Panama with an innovative program for the blind.

A project that began in Panama to help some of the country’s 3,000 blind gain hope and self esteem and become functioning, working members of the community, is blossoming in the United Kingdom, and has attracted attention in the United States, but is still lacking recognition in the country where it began.

Vision of Hope is the brainchild of jewelry designer and former mission worker Vernon Wilson who, with a small team of volunteers, is teaching blind workers to not only assemble jewelry but market it by developing sales outlets and arranging Tupperware-style events.

Being blind, in even the most advanced of first world countries, is a major challenge, but in Panama, particularly among the poorer section of the population, it can be a near insurmountable obstacle, leading to a lifetime of isolation and deprivation, relying on those who already have little to share.

Wilson, a jewelry designer and craftsman, ran a successful store in the U.S. before selling up and “retiring” to Belize for 12 years of missionary work. Moving to Panama, he became active in developing and implementing outreach programs at St Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral. In a conversation with a blind churchgoer he asked what the biggest challenge facing a Panamanian blind person was. He was told, “Finding Work”. Following that conversation he conceived a program to bring new hope to those euphemistically named “visually impaired”, by teaching them skills to help them become part of the workforce and develop a sense of self-esteem.

With a small team of helpers, he developed a training plan enabling blind students to identify by touch, the sometimes minuscule polished stones, pewter, silver and gold pieces that go to make up bracelets, earrings, necklaces and pendants. They are pre-sorted into small plastic containers and the blind workers assemble them into the finished product.

After an initial training period, the student gets to take home his or her first completed work of art as a gift for the family. Its delivery often brings emotional reactions says Wilson, recalling one mother bursting into tears after realizing that her handicapped son had personally assembled the gift.

Completed items are shipped to retail outlets in tourist centers like Playa Bonita and Gamboa Resort where they fetch prices ranging from $2 to $95.

The next step was to widen the teacher base, and a teacher training program, including Braille was introduced to the University of Panama.

When news of the endeavor reached Britain’s prestigious and internationally recognized, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in Northern Ireland they were quick to recognize its potential and joined with Ulster Sheltered Employment Limited (USEL) to set up a steering committee. USEL has been working since 1962 to provide work for the disabled. Between them the two organizations enrolled support from Ulster University, a leading wholesale jeweler, and numerous business leaders willing to provide advice and serve on a board. Wilson flew to Belfast in July to help move the program to fruition and it is now active.

Carols by Candlelight, the annual charity concert organized by The CanadaPLUS Club, is also providing support, but so far no support has come from Panamanian authorities.

Items of jewelry made by Vision of Hope students will be on sale at The Canadian Thanksgiving Celebration and at Carols by Candlelight, December 12.

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