Debbie, 68, has overcome a lot in her life. Being blind since birth, she has embraced the philosophy of making each day count. She has dedicated her life to reaching high and far to realize her goal of full inclusion in her version of the American dream. Through words that led to actions, she found her place on the playing field. Her marriage to Frela, also totally blind and a true kindred spirit in his own unique way, gave her a wonderful life partner with whom to walk this interesting, sometimes difficult, but ultimately triumphant path until his death in 2010.
When Debbie saw firsthand the barriers and harsh reality faced by many people with disabilities, she decided to go into disability rights advocacy. “My goal to earn oxygen on this earth is to try to do things that matter,” she said. Being an animal lover by nature and someone who has had three guide dogs in her lifetime, Debbie’s Wish was to finally be able to touch and feel several of her favorite animals up close and personal.
Her admiration for animals began at a young age, after reading a book about elephants that changed her perception of animals completely. “If we could take life at its best and worst as animals do, then we would be far more ready to immerse ourselves in the act of living with its yearning goals of the giving and receiving of respect and of loving and being loved,” said Debbie. She remains optimistic and dedicated to walking through life’s obstacles with determination and positivity.
Debbie has accomplished a great deal during her time as a disability rights advocate, including her role as the first totally blind person to teach in a public high school in the state of Maryland, being the chair of the American Council of the Blind Special Education task force, the past President of and current Chair of the Florida Council of the Blind Legislative Committee, the past President and affiliates liaison for Guide Dog Users, Inc. and a national, state and Manatee County, Florida advocate to ensure that people with disabilities have the ability to vote secretly and independently.
Debbie enjoys her busy and active life in Freedom Village and continues her work in the advocacy arena by participating in many of the Freedom Village activities, including singing with the Village Singers, enjoying the opera, theater and symphony, planning conferences, working with her colleagues in the disability rights arena, writing and public speaking.
While constantly giving back to her community and non-stop traveling, Debbie cares deeply for people and puts their needs above her own. Being “only blind,” Debbie chooses to remain adventurous and outgoing while saving time for the arts and her love for animals.
Wish of a Lifetime, in partnership with Brookdale Senior Living, was honored to grant this unique wish for an incredibly inspiring senior. Debbie traveled to the Exotic Animal Experience, described as one of the most unique, hands on, interactive animal encounters in Florida. There she was finally able to experience something that she had dreamed her entire life—holding and petting animals normally only seen at the zoo or in the wild, including lemurs and kangaroos. In reflecting on this very memorable experience, Debbie declared, “My Wish of a Lifetime day surpassed anything that I could have imagined!”
All photos are from Linda Reitz of Coffee House Studios. Video courtesy of Jodi Carnevale Sandefur.