December 15, 2011

Our Neighbors: They live by faith and not by sight

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Shannon and Paula Caldwell love to cook.  They keep in touch with friends and family via Facebook and texting. They are active in church and Christian ministry.

They are a typical 30-something couple.  They just both happen to be blind.

Shannon was born with a rare, genetic disorder known as Alstrom syndrome.  Alstrom syndrome causes vision or hearing loss, both of which Shannon has, and a host of different symptoms.

“I don’t have a lot of symptoms,” Shannon said.  “I’ve been blessed and lucky to live a pretty healthy life.”

Paula wasn’t born blind.  However, born three months premature, Paula received too much oxygen in the incubator, damaging the retinas of her eyes, which led to permanent blindness.

The two met as fourth graders at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville.  Shannon, who grew up in Clay County, and Paula, whose family lived in Owensboro, might never have met otherwise.  They started dating their junior year in high school and married in 1997.

“God brought us together through many avenues,” Paula said.

But blindness doesn’t define them, or hinder them in their efforts to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, something they are very passionate about.

The Caldwells are involved in Emmaus, a Christian ministry group that hosts weekend retreats at Laurel Lake Baptist Camp and visits several eastern Kentucky prisons.

When he began jail ministry in 2009, Shannon didn’t know if any prison would allow a blind man with hearing loss to even enter the facility.  With Emmaus, the Caldwells are allowed to visit residents of the United States Penitentiary (USP) Big Sandy, located in Inez, and Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville.

 “Before I went in there, I thought people would be standoffish and cold,” Paula said.  She said their group receives a welcome reception each time they visit.  

“It’s hard to put into words and describe how it feels,” Shannon said.  “They are so receptive, so hungry for God.”

Neither Shannon nor Paula grew up in a traditional Christian home, but both say God provided people in their lives who nurtured their spiritual walk.

Shannon hopes that he can now be that positive, Christian influence for someone else.

“I know I’m talking with folks who’ve made mistakes, some big mistakes.  I know that many of them are struggling,” he said.  “It’s rewarding to be there for somebody else.’  

The couple also visits local high schools, including North Laurel High School, to talk about living with blindness.

“We talk about ‘Changing What It Means to Be Blind.’ That’s what we call it,” Paula said.  

“We tell them it’s not shameful to be blind.  And, it’s not the end of the world.  We educate them and make them aware,” Shannon said.  He knows these students will become the next business owners and community leaders in London and wants them to be prepared to serve a blind patron like himself.  

 “We try to live independently, as much as possible,” Paula said.  “I always say, as much as possible, because there might be things we need help with.  We realize that.”

It’s in these instances, when they need transportation or help reading their mail, that God has most provided, she said.

“We have a circle of supporters. God provided that.”

From church family to Emmaus friends, help is never far when it’s needed. And their biggest supporter has been Shannon’s mother, Ruth Caldwell, who lives nearby.  

“Like any other mother, she’s concerned about me,” Shannon said, “but she pushed me to make my own way.”  He learned to live independently because of the loving support of his mother, he said.

The couple moved to Laurel County in 2001, as a halfway point between both their families and to have the resources of a larger county – such as good doctors and hospitals – at their disposal.

Paula said she has had to learn to be patient when people assume she is unable to do things herself.  

“Sometimes, they’ll look to our driver instead of us, to ask us a question at the doctor’s office or to sign my name at the (grocery) checkout.”

Just because she’s blind doesn’t mean she can’t hear or can’t sign her name, she said.

“I think they are surprised by how we get around, how we do everyday stuff, like doing the laundry.  My first thought is, ‘that’s something I do every day,’” she said.

The two are also active with the Alstrom Syndrome International organization, which hosts reunions for the 700 individuals worldwide who have the disease, and with the Kentucky Association of the Deaf-Blind.  

“Not a lot of people understand what it’s like,” Shannon said.  “We go to the reunions to be with each other, to share experiences.”

Shannon works from home part-time as a disability advocate with the UK Center for Excellence in Lexington.  Paula also does contract work with the Center for Excellence.

“I have been successful as a person who lives with this disease,” Shannon said.  “Hopefully one day we’ll find a cure.”

But for now, he truly believes everything happens according to God’s plan.

“I believe God could heal me if He wanted to.  But I think He can use me much better as a person with a disability than a person without a disability,” Shannon continued.  

“I’m willing to be open for Him to use me to touch other people’s lives.”

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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