Lions Clubs International have been serving communities around the world since 1917 — and Brentwood since 1929.
Best known for helping individuals with vision loss and blindness, part of the Brentwood Lions Club’s mission is to “reach out to our community through vision care, assistance with obtaining hearing aids, and addressing unmet health and educational needs.”
About five years ago, in the spirit of community togetherness, the club asked Valerie DePaola — president of the club since July — to come to the Lions Club and speak about her experiences living with vision loss. DePaola, 45, is legally blind, and has a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
“Retinitis pigmentosa is basically the dying of the cones and rods in the back of your eye, on the retina,” DePaola said. “It starts with night blindness, and progresses to tunnel vision and no peripheral vision. Some people go completely blind — just light perception.”
DePaola still has some vision — less than 10 degrees — which she describes as “like looking through as a wrapping paper tube,” though she is night blind. She has been legally blind since 2013, and was diagnosed at 31. Most people with RP are legally blind by 40.
She was asked to speak to the Brentwood Lions Club and, after finding out more about what the club does for those who live with low vision and blindness, she joined.
“I really wanted to give back for the resources I have received, and just really wanted to help out,” she said.
After joining the club, DePaola started a support group for low vision and blind individuals to share their experiences, offer resources and give advice — something she felt would help combat the general lack of education and help available in the medical and optical fields.
“Nobody else really understands what it’s like,” she said. “It can be very isolating. You can’t get out. You can’t drive anymore. Public transportation might be an issue, especially if you have guide dogs. We have access issues sometimes … so that’s why I started the group. That was just something that Brentwood was really lacking, and I personally wished we had.”
There is a group of about 10 to 15 people who regularly attend the support group, and DePaola sometimes gets calls from more who want to come but aren’t quite there yet.
“It’s really hard to admit it,” she said. “Denial is a huge factor in dealing with blindness.”
But there are ways for people living with low vision and blindness to regain their independence. It’s all about finding what works for them, whether that’s mobility aids, guide dogs, technology, large-print books or magnifying glasses. And the feedback she’s received about the group shows it is making a difference.
“They’re happy to have a place,” DePaola said. “I know it’s hard, and there are going to be days where you just want to fall down on the floor and cry, and we all have those days, and it’s okay to have those days. It will be okay. And although life is going to be different now — and it might be harder to do the things that you once did — you will still be able to do those things. You will just have to adjust how you do those things. And although losing your vision is definitely life changing, it is not life ending. And there is light at the end of the tunnel. It will be okay, and you’re not alone.”
“The Lions Clubs are the vanguard of the blind,” said Fred Ginsler, a past president of the Brentwood Lions Club. “Having (Valerie) as a blind individual so closely associated with the club … She can actually guide us on low vision awareness, which many of us, including doctors, know little about.”
Valerie DePaola’s support group meets the second Monday of the month from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Resurrection Ministries, 1275 Fairview Ave., in Brentwood. For questions, email her at email@example.com. The Brentwood Lions Club meets the first Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at Dad’s Café, 1135 Second St., Building A, in Brentwood. For more information, visit www.e-clubhouse.org/sites/brentwoodca or call 925-587-3783.