World Services for Blind to honor Sharon Priest

Posted: October 22, 2017 at 2:34 a.m.

Ron Copeland heads up an all-volunteer committee that has picked Sharon Priest as the recipient of the 2017 Vision Award, given by the World Services for the Blind. The event is Friday at the Little Rock Marriott.

Linking yourself to a cause is sometimes like courting a potential future spouse.

You befriend a neighbor who is passionate about the organization's mission, and as time goes on, you learn more about the group, and the cause becomes appealing. The next thing you know, you've locked arms with those running things and end up serving as chairman for an annual fundraiser.

Just like that, you're hooked, as Ron Copeland got hooked on the mission of World Services for the Blind and is chairman of a committee that's hosting the 2017 Vision Award Luncheon. The 17th annual event, scheduled for Friday at the Little Rock Marriott, will honor Sharon Priest, former Arkansas secretary of state, former Little Rock mayor and former executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.

"What happens here is very inspirational," says Copeland, talking in an office at the World Services for the Blind, which encompasses a full city block on Fair Park Boulevard between 28th and 29th streets. "And once you get connected with it, you just see how it transforms peoples' lives."

The group's mission is "to empower people who are blind or visually impaired in the United States and around the world to achieve sustainable independence," according to World Services for the Blind's website. The organization has served more than 13,000 people from all 50 states and 58 countries.

The group can train up to 100 people at a time and can house 60 to 70 people in men's and women's dormitories and in two independent-living apartments in Little Rock. The average training period is about six months.

Copeland connected to World Services for the Blind through a neighbor, Little Rock lawyer Peter Kumpe, son of the organization's late founder Roy Kumpe.

The elder Kumpe had trachoma -- an infection that causes cornea scarring -- and formed World Services for the Blind as Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind with help from the state Lions Clubs in 1947. The name was later changed to World Services for the Blind to reflect its global reach.

"He had a very strong viewpoint and values that visually impaired people needed to be independent as much as possible," Copeland says of Roy Kumpe. Copeland is retired as executive director of the University District Partnership, a group that works to improve the residential neighborhoods around the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. World Services for the Blind is in what is known as the University District.

Copeland says most who seek World Services for the Blind's services are adults who have lost or are losing their sight due to accident, injury or a medical condition. "Instead of growing up blind, they have to learn to function independently," he says. "The goal is for the client to apply their skills and ability to a new career."

Besides technology-based career-training programs, the group also offers a technology lab tailored to the visually impaired, workplace development and programs designed for high school and college-age students who are blind or visually impaired. There's a small domicile where clients learn the basics of day-to-day living -- how to cook, how to manage their wardrobe, how to read Braille and the like.

World Services for the Blind's longest-running work contract was providing customer service representatives to the IRS. The IRS provided the necessary equipment for the organization to train its clients at the Little Rock campus then put them to work in an IRS customer service center, Copeland says. World Services for the Blind President and Chief Executive Officer Sharon Giovinazzo is seeking to partner with employers for more work in this vein, he adds.

Giovinazzo began losing her vision in May 2001 and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"I went from perfect 20/20 sight to no sight in a matter of seven months," she says. "A lack of sight does not have to mean a lack of vision."

Visually impaired people are often told what they can't do, rather than what they can. "When they step foot in World Services for the Blind we meet them where they are on their journey and give them a road map and the vehicle to get to where they want to go," Giovinazzo says.

Several years ago, World Services for the Blind suffered from a lack of cash flow, and Copeland credits Giovinazzo with righting the fiscal ship and rebuilding enrollment. The recession of almost 10 years ago caused a decline in client referrals to World Services for the Blind from state rehabilitation offices around the country and a loss of travel money for out-of-state clients seeking training with the organization, he says.

Copeland marvels at how the group cobbles together funding from private donations, grants and tuition. The role of the all-volunteer foundation board is community outreach and fundraising, he says.

The Vision Award, a crystal sculpture, is to recognize "someone who's improved the community, both for sighted people as well as blind people," Copeland says. The first award, given in 2001, went to downtown developer Jimmy Moses; last year's honoree was UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, who's now retired.

Priest, who now does bookkeeping for her son's plumbing business, also fits the bill, Copeland says. The Downtown Little Rock Partnership led to the revitalization of the city's Main Street. Giovinazzo says Priest also worked directly with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, "which made sweeping changes to the ability of people with disabilities to be able to vote, independently."

Giovinazzo says World Services for the Blind clients "only lack sight in the physical sense, but what they leave here with is a vision of a brighter future."

Tickets for the 2017 World Services for the Blind Vision Award Luncheon are $120 per person or $1,200 per table of 10. Visit wsblind.org/visionaward2017 to be a sponsor, or contact the foundation at (501) 664-7100, Ext. 225 or mjones@wsblind.org for tickets and information.

Ron Copeland became involved with the World Services for the Blind through a neighbor whose father founded the organization 70 years ago this year.

High Profile on 10/22/2017