Rita Harris, who is legally blind, has a bucket list of adventures she is marking off: skydiving, climbing the Eiffel Tower, driving at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And there is more to come, says the 58-year-old grandmother from Madison.
Harris and her husband Henry are well-traveled. But at times, she likes to go solo with her guide dog, Madden. They’ve been to Disney World and on a mission trip to Ghana, Africa, among other destinations.
“I love adventure, and I refuse to let my disability deter me from experiencing the things I want to experience in life,” Harris said.
“Life is just amazing; it is a blessing, it’s a gift. And it’s meant to be enjoyed.”
Harris says she does more now than before her slow progression of sight loss from retinitis pigmentosa (RP) began in the late 1990s. RP is a rare genetic disease where the retina cells break down, causing eventual blindness.
In 2014, she founded the nonprofit Living Life Team, Inc. to support others with limited vision. The organization provides mobility instruction, assistive devices and other resources. Members hear from vision rehabilitation speakers and go on outings together. Transportation is provided.
“God placed it in my heart to start an organization to help others who are blind or visually impaired, so they won’t have to go through the transition without having support,” Harris said.
The group has been a big help to George Hunter, 66, of Boswick. He lost his sight 11 years ago due to diabetes and has been with Living Life for five years. Before joining the support group, Hunter said he didn’t go anywhere and didn’t trust people.
“When I got with the group, I picked up and got out of the depression,” said Hunter, who is married with three grown children and three grandsons.
With Living Life, Hunter has gone bowling, horseback riding, kayaking and on other adventures. A few years ago, he and Harris participated in an international beach baseball event in Florida for those with impaired vision. Hunter said it was an exciting trip where he met people from all over the world.
Margo Faris, 69, of Bishop, is legally blind because of macular degeneration. She joined the Living Life group about four months ago after becoming frustrated at the lack of resources available to those with limited vision. Faris said, with her condition, she fears losing her past identity.
Being a part of Living Life “brings me a means of peace,” Faris said. “It’s very easy to think you’re all alone.”
Throughout the pandemic, members have supported each other through Zoom chats. Each month, the Harrises have delivered food and supplies, including sanitizers and masks, to each member.
Living Life Board member Marilyn Williams – Harris’ older sister – said most people “don’t realize how few opportunities there are for individuals who cannot see. Most businesses and other organizations are not accessible to them.”
When her vision loss began, Harris was a busy working mom with two young children. When her medical condition was properly diagnosed in 2013, she had already given up her car keys and her job. Harris became isolated and depressed.
“I got very angry,” she remembered. “I was ashamed of myself like I didn’t feel like a whole person; I didn’t have anything to offer to anyone.”
Harris said she relied on her faith in God to pull herself out of the dumps and receive help.
She was taught to use a white cane at her home, followed by more intensive cane training in Michigan, then Lead Dog instruction in Florida. With each training, her attitude began to soar. When guide dog Madden became her companion, her independence “sky-rocketed,” Harris said.
In addition to leading Living Life and traveling, Harris taught herself to paint and has sold many paintings online. She is active in the Lion’s Clubs International and serves on the ADA Board at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“I made a promise to God that my life would not be about me, that my life would be committed to reaching out and serving others,” Harris said. “That’s what I’ve been doing. That’s how I get my joy by bringing sunshine to others.”
WHAT INSPIRES ABOUT LIVING LIFE TEAM
Activities: Bowling, horseback riding, pottery classes all have a purpose. “Each time they participate in an activity, that is a stepping stone that builds confidence,” said Founder and Director Rita Harris.
Support group: Once a month, members meet informally to share challenges and enjoy friendships. If someone is feeling down, Harris will call for a “phone party” where everyone gets on a phone call together to give encouragement.
How to join or help: livinglifeteam.net/