Sharell Bailey was seated in a classroom at the National Statler Center for Careers in Hospitality not long ago when her eyesight, which had been failing for years, finally left her completely.
She didn't miss a beat.
"It happened on a Wednesday. Thursday morning I was back in class," she remembered during a break at the Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted M.D. Center for the Visually Impaired, where she pieces together cotton turtlenecks for Navy flight crews.
"I said, I'm going to get myself rehabilitated and then continue with what I have, because what I have is life," said the 31-year-old native of Jamaica.
Not once since total darkness descended has Bailey's determination to lead a productive life wavered. After completing the Statler program, which prepares blind and other disabled people to work in the the hotel industry, she enrolled at Empire State College, where she is training to be a rehabilitation counselor.
Her intelligence, willingness to learn and strong work ethic are typical of people served by the Olmsted Center, said President Ronald S. Maier. Finding jobs for them is another matter.
October is national Disabilities Awareness Month, which Maier hopes will draw attention to the fact unemployment among the visually handicapped stands at 65 to 70 percent nationwide.
He wants prospective employers to know the Olmsted Center can supply some of the most capable, dependable people in the Western New York labor force.
Bailey won't wait for the world to come to her doorstep. After completing night college, she hopes to stay at the Olmsted Center, teaching others how to live with blindness.
"Inside these walls is where I rebuilt my self-esteem," said Bailey, who was an accounting clerk in Jamaica before she came to the United States in 2000 to seek treatment for her optical atrophy. She was living in Queens when she learned of the Olmsted Center's Statler hospitality program, which was founded in 1999 and has accepted visually impaired people from around the world.
Now residing in the city with her husband, Ralph, and 12-year-old son, Vaughn-Dane, who attends School 74, Bailey believes she can teach others a great deal about how to live independently.
She cooks, does laundry and gets herself ready for work in perfectly matched outfits.
"Thank God for what I had before I went blind," she said. "I knew colors, so I'm able to coordinate what I wear. The key is being organized."
She wants to help others and earn her way. "My purpose is to be a good mother to my son," said Bailey, who attends school parent-teacher meetings and is showing Vaughn-Dane how to cook and do laundry.
"I want to work, have pride in myself and then get my son to college," she said. "And to do that I'm willing to start at the bottom of the ladder and work up."