Blind Beginnings: Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and their Families

By Evra Taylor
Altruism is among the qualities that describe what one would call a “good person.” When Vancouver’s Shawn Marsolais founded the organization Blind Beginnings in 2008, she had no idea that her generous heart would touch so many lives, helping countless Canadians deal with the effects of visual impairment.

The stated mission of Blind Beginnings is to provide children and youth who are blind or visually impaired with the necessary opportunities, experiences, services, and family/community support to reach their full potential.

Blind Beginnings offers a broad range of programs, including youth leadership based on mentorship. Marsolais’ philosophy is based in part on the notion of matching newly blind people with those who have been navigating the waters of living with blindness for a while; in other words, those who have walked the walk. She points out that most people don’t know anyone who is blind. As a result, it’s important for them to have a “buddy” who has been there. This adventurous lady knows what she’s talking about. She was born with roughly 10 per cent vision, which is considered legally blind; currently she has 1-2 per cent vision.

Marsolais’ view is that everyone in the family unit is affected by a person’s lack of sight; therefore, the needs of the entire family must be addressed. She stated, “Frequently in what I term ‘new families’ – those in which a diagnosis has just been made – everyone is overwhelmed and devastated.” Blind Beginnings enters the picture and fills the critical need for support and understanding through a parent-to-parent support program in which experienced parents of children who are blind or visually impaired are trained to support parents who are new to parenting a blind child.

Outings called “community discovery” allow children hands-on experiences such as visiting a fire station where they are encouraged to hold a fire hose. Stated Marsolais: “Children born blind require more time to learn certain concepts. This type of activity educates both the kids and the community”. The discovery concept was born of her own journey down the winding road of coping with the challenges she faced as a blind youth. “With Blind Beginnings, I create from my own experiences. After high school, I signed on to do an internship program at a school for the blind in England which matched my life experience to a job. I found the other youths intimidating but the school changed my life.” She was moved by the tremendous potential she saw in the people she met at the school, and she lamented that at that time,British Columbia did not have a school for the blind.

Marsolais moved on to receive her Master’s degree in counselling; she is doing her practicum in the Counselling Department of University of British Columbia. In terms of future plans, stepping away from some of Blind Beginnings’ activities will allow her to pursue counselling, which is her passion.

Early on, Marsolais committed her own savings to the launch of Blind Beginnings. As a start-up, the group does not receive any government funding, although it does benefit from some foundation grants and the proceeds of various fundraising events. This burgeoning non-profit initiative is run entirely by volunteers and, like many charitable groups, it seems that there are never enough resources to meet the need. Blind Beginnings is hoping to find a fund development officer who would lend expertise in fundraising and event planning, two areas whose growth would allow it to expand its reach. In fact, Marsolais’ objective is to be able to provide services outside mainland B.C., her current focus, to include people in rural areas.

Marsolais is an example of a woman who chose to give back to her community and make it thrive, while discovering for herself a vision of life devoted to service and support for the children and youth around her.