Just a decade removed from graduating from the Mount, Vickie Russell Kennedy ’68 was told she would eventually become blind from retinitis pigmentosa. Today a person might scour the Internet for information and look for technology that could help them weather the situation. In Kennedy’s day, there wasn’t much of either.
But she has been a part of helping with both.
“It was scary for me, and I didn’t have places to turn for answers,” says Kennedy, who received her bachelor’s degree in music. “Later I volunteered, literally having an 800 number that routed calls to my house from people facing the same fate to talk to me. I could help prepare them and show them how to try and deal their condition.”
A previous article in the 2006 winter/spring Mount magazine mentioned many of her important contributions, including her work with Guide Dogs for the Blind and conceiving and executing the “Save Sight Sunday” symposium at UC Berkeley. An update on Kennedy’s work:
Freida and fighting for others
Kennedy, who had been so active in helping others get guide dogs, realized her beloved guide Freida would soon be retired from guide dog duties. She launched a second career for her beloved yellow Labrador retriever that led to more than 3000 patient and staff visits between Queens Hospital and two St. Francis hospice facilities, all in Hawaii. Her next working dog, Angela, also a yellow Labrador retriever, was a part of some of the visits as well.
“Just as an example, there was an elderly patient who could speak but wouldn’t,” she says. “She wouldn’t even open her eyes. Then Freida lovingly licked her hand. The woman opened her eyes and said, ‘I love you, Freida.’ There were many tears over that moment.”
Kennedy also served on the board of Assistive Technology Resource Center. “It’s for those with different challenges, which could be blindness, cognitive skills or other areas,” she says. “It was a resource center where you could go work with the technology and someone there would teach you. This could be a computer or another helpful device. Some would go to a blind center for four or five months of education learning Braille, technology and cane travel.”
A board member of the Hawaii Association of the Blind, Kennedy chaired its annual convention this year, along with being the chair of its fundraising committee.
She is now lending her voice in a literal way. Along with husband Jim, Kennedy has been involved in providing audio description for the national parks and landmarks such as the Jefferson Memorial and, within the next few weeks, the Arizona Memorial. “When visitors go to any national park they are given a brochure, and we describe for the blind the actual photographs in the brochure.”
She often relies on the resilience she learned when she traveled from her native Hawaii to become a student at the Mount. “College was so much to get used to, and I admit I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she says. “But the school was such a support, and the people had a great spirit about them. There’s such a sense of community.”
A great spirit herself, Kennedy could just enjoy living near the water in Oahu. But, there are people who still need her help. “I was a mess when I was diagnosed all those years ago,” she says. “It’s my pleasure to help others to maybe have an easier time.”