Before Rita Harris began losing her sight as a middle-aged mom with two active kids, she says she was more of a homebody who lived a somewhat boring life.
Now at age 60 and totally blind, this grandmother describes herself as an “adrenaline junkie and a thrill seeker.”
Skydiving, bungee jumping, ziplining and horseback riding are off of her bucket list. She’s also unafraid to plunge into new enterprises.
Harris taught herself to paint and creates beautiful scenes that she visualizes in her mind. Her canvas paintings sell online, and some now hang in mountain bed-and-breakfast inns and other locales.
“I realize life is such a precious gift, and we should absorb it. Don’t take life for granted but take and live it for all it has to offer,” said Harris. She and Henry Harris, her spouse of 41 years, live outside of Madison in the small town of Buckhead.
Harris wants to see others with vision loss experience that same sense of adventure and love of life.
She created a nonprofit support group, Living Life Team, to help visually impaired adults navigate life independently. Participants come from around Athens, metro Atlanta and beyond. Harris lovingly calls them her “VIPs – visually impaired persons who are also very important persons.” Together, they uplift each other.
“When I get the new VIPs, usually they’ve lost their self-esteem and independence,” said Harris, who also went through struggles early on.
In 2002 she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa and eventual blindness. Harris said her “whole life’s attitude spiraled down” as she gradually lost her vision.
The first step for new VIPs is to rebuild self-confidence through encouragement from established members, outings to restaurants and activities like bowling. Group visits to a grocery store or a doctor’s office helps with mobility training.
Harris said her confidence soared once she started traveling alone, and in the past seven years, she’s regularly gotten on a plane for business or fun with her faithful guide dog, Madden.
Though Madden is no longer working as her guide, Harris gets along fine using her white-tipped cane, as she did during a fall Lions Club leadership conference in Los Angeles. Harris is active in the Georgia District Lions, serving as second vice president.
It’s important for the visually impaired to get out of their normal environment and into an unfamiliar place, Harris said.
“When you lose your vision and become disabled, it takes a big chunk out of you. You feel like, ‘I’m not whole; I can’t do the things I want to do.’ So you have to hold on to someone all the time,” she explained.
“But to be able to let go and not hold on and stand on your own to do the maneuvering and go where you want to go and do what you want to do, it really puts life back into you.”
Harris convinced one reluctant Living Life Team member to take a trip with her, and they flew to Michigan to visit relatives. Harris demonstrated how to navigate the airport using special assistance available to travelers, check into the hotel and find their room with help from the staff. She placed raised dot stickers in strategic areas so they wouldn’t get lost.
Harris said her friend had a wonderful time and is ready to travel again.
“When she expressed her feelings about the trip, that alone was rewarding to me” said Harris.
“I don’t want anyone to be left out and left behind. I know what a dark place I was in, and I don’t want to see anybody else go through that.”
HOW TO HELP
Get involved as a volunteer or donate to help the visually impaired obtain an independent life.
For more information, visit https://livinglifeteam.net/.
WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT
This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.
Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.
We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead. We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.
And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.