by Vic Leanza

In my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, a metamorphosis occurred. It was one of a number of transformations which was to influence my life and the lives of others.

I had attended public schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Much time was spent on English, math, science, social studies and recreational activities. Now I found myself in a totally different atmosphere with the emphasis on developing mental, physical and spiritual excellence. The university is now twice as large as it was when I was a student there.

At that time I was also visually impaired (some called it legally blind) and I was struggling to maintain my academic and extracurricular responsibilities with some success. Classes were challenging and campus life was interesting, but nothing like what was to come.

One day, as I was strolling along on the beautiful grounds of Our Lady's University, with its well-groomed lawns and gorgeous trees, I decided to walk down near one of the two lakes on the campus. I encountered a little, muscle-bound man, dressed in a swim suit, who was about to plunge into the cold waters of St. Joseph's Lake. I had no idea that he was a priest at that moment.

He began to regard me with some interest, noticing my tendency to stand very close to many of the objects which I was observing. He started toward me and began to speak. "God bless you, son," he said. "I see that you have been presented with a visual challenge. If you will permit me to make a suggestion, I would recommend that you meet me at the boathouse on the other side of this lake in about 20 minutes, if you have the time. I have something to show you."

Whereupon, he dove into the chilly waters and proceeded to swim off into the distance, well beyond my limited vision. About 15 minutes later, I was standing by the little boathouse on the other side of the lake when a small, heavy-set priest came hustling toward me with a set of keys jingling in his hand. He proceeded to unlock the building and open the two doors at the top of a ramp leading down from the boathouse to the water. I moved in closer and began to make out several small boats, neatly stacked in rows inside.

Soon, we were carrying one of the boats down the ramp. He had very little trouble with the weight of the boat. (Later, I found out that he was also in charge of the weight-lifting program in the student athletic center.)

That's how it all started. I learned how to sail. Usually, others steered the boat while I handled the lines. Then I became a member of the sailing team. I handled the jib sheets when we raced against Michigan. I graduated to the mainsheet when we raced against Northwestern, and so on. The rest is history.

After graduation, I sailed with people who owned larger sailboats. Finally, I bought my first sailboat when I became gainfully employed. I have owned and operated a number of sailboats, one at a time, in a slow succession, throughout my adult life. My years as a professional psychologist have been filled with challenges, but my avocational activities as a blind sailor teaching my sighted friends to sail as they provide visual feedback for me when we are under way has given me much pleasure.

My wife of many years was one of my early sailing mates. Later, I taught my two children to sail. My son is presently the captain of a tall ship.

My eyesight gradually decreased and finally disappeared completely after many failed surgeries. Then, it happened. A 26-foot Pearson masthead sloop was donated to the Cleveland Sight Center in 1994. The Cleveland Sight Center is a large, non-profit agency which provides many services for persons who are blind or visually impaired in northeast Ohio. I was asked by the executive director of the agency to start a sailing program at the center since I was the only blind sailor that he knew.

The sailing program has now been operating for many years. It began with one boat and 12 people in 1995 and now has two boats and almost 100 people, half of whom are sighted and half of whom are blind or visually impaired. We have 12 teams of eight people each. Two teams go out each evening during the week from May through October. People join together in a mutually interdependent experience as they sail with their team each week. We do this on Lake Erie, which provides many challenges as well as beautiful sunsets and plenty of multi-sensory experiences.

So, you see, the transformation has been passed on. The spirit moves us. You might say it is the Holy Spirit at work.

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