Pittsburgh Friendship Group connects visually impaired with volunteers

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Rhea Richey may be blind, but she knows friendship when she senses it.

Ms. Richey, 60, lost her sight to an illness eight years ago, and she spent years alone in her McCandless home, dwelling on the loss of her career, hobbies and sense of independence.

"I would sit day after day thinking of all the things I did accomplish" before losing sight, she said. "And I thought my life was over."

And then Andrea Schwartz came along.

Four years ago, Ms. Richey joined Ms. Schwartz's all-volunteer Pittsburgh Friendship Group, which connects people with vision impairment to one another and to a group of volunteers throughout the region. The group has grown to include 36 volunteers and more than 30 members, primarily from the North Hills, with varying degrees of sight loss.

Since its inception 41/2 years ago, the group has been meeting at Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Ross free of charge, though it is planning to switch temporarily to air-conditioned facilities during this summer at St. John's Lutheran Church in McCandless.

"I can now feel like I can accomplish just as much in the future, and like I do have a future," Ms. Richey said recently during a break from the group's monthly "Yes I Can" meeting.

The group hosts myriad activities, bringing its members and volunteers together almost every week for a book club, a support group, knitting, mall walks and work for other local nonprofits. Recently, members and volunteers put together 1,500 mailings for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Over 200,000 Pennsylvanians are visually impaired or blind, according to Prevent Blindness, a national organization. Loss of vision in old age especially can lead to alienation and loneliness.

To combat such hopelessness and isolation, Ms. Schwartz brings visually impaired people together, not only for camaraderie, but so they can help each other cope with the progression of a disability that almost no one else can comprehend.

Ms. Schwartz, 70, received her psychology degree in 1972 from the University of Maryland, and has founded and worked for several organizations that serve the blind and elderly.

"What's so wonderful is that people who are further along in their journey of adjusting to blindness are a tremendous inspiration to those who are not as far along," Ms. Schwartz said. "It's what the group does for each other that makes it so special."

The group boasts a variety of members and volunteers. There's Merv Doerfler of Bellevue, who, having dealt with macular degeneration for more than 15 years, gets injections in his eyes every five weeks. He leads the men's group and was the first male member of the knitting group -- though he doesn't do much knitting anymore.

"I just come for the social aspect of it," he said Wednesday, grinning as the group celebrated his 67th birthday.

Lou Gamber of Richland, 75, has been legally blind since 1998. His wife drives him to the monthly meetings where he regularly breaks out his accordion for the crowd.

"They love music," he said. "I'm their favorite."

Joanna Berkovic, now in her 80s, lost her sight when she was 10. She sat at Wednesday's meeting knitting panels for an afghan, and was quick to show off a baby-blue cap she recently finished for her niece. Next, she might begin knitting caps for cancer patients.

Ms. Berkovic's mentor is Mary Lou Spindt, 94, of Hampton, the group's master knitter.

"At other groups, you share ideas and patterns," Ms. Spindt said. "Here, you share in the creation."

Belinda Redpath, 57, of Ross, also a volunteer, discovered the group two years ago when she started bringing her father, James McDonald. At 100 years old, Mr. McDonald had been visually impaired since his 80s.

"It really helped with isolation issues he had," said Ms. Redpath, who saw her father buoyed by the sense of independence that came with socializing in a group of friends, especially a monthly lunch at local restaurants. "Even though he didn't always remember people's names, he still loved to come."

Mr. McDonald, a World War II veteran who ran his own business for many years, died in November at 102. Ms. Redpath has stayed with the group, feeling attached to the people who meant so much to her father.

Those interested in joining as members or volunteers can contact Ms. Schwartz at 724-444-0064. No experience is necessary, though Ms. Schwartz did offer one warning to would-be volunteers: "Working with our members may prove addictive."

Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1504.

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