LILLIAN MATTES Union Springs, New York In Need Of a Second Pair of Eyes In June of 2016, single mom Stephanie Mattes awoke early to a call from a neighbor telling her that her 8-year-old autistic, non-verbal daughter Lillian was alone outside in her nightgown and socks. Mattes had worked late the night before, and she was asleep in another part of the house. She hadn’t heard Lillian leave the house along a busy street. But there was Lillian, by a neighbor’s house when her mother got to her, and she was OK. “My heart just sank,” remembers Mattes, who is 29 and owns a hair salon in Union Springs, New York. “One of my biggest stresses is that it’s just us−me and Lillian. I knew even with family and thankfully, all these nice people in a small town who noticed her, things had to change. I needed some sense of peace. I need another set of eyes to know that she’s OK.” She began to look into service dogs for Lillian. And then Lions stepped in. One of Mattes’ clients at her salon is a Lion. She made introductions, and soon the Union Springs Lions had raised more than $4,000 with a pancake breakfast attended by Mattes and her daughter to help purchase a service dog. Other organizations came forward, and Mattes did a variety of fundraising through her shop. After nine months, she had the $25,000 to get a dog that they expect to receive between January and March. The dog from Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers will address a huge safety concern, says Mattes. Besides being a loyal companion to a little girl who loves and responds well to animals, it will be able to alert Mattes if her daughter begins to wander, and also if she gets into dangerous self-harming behavior. “There’s a difference between a service dog and a therapy dog, but I think the dog will offer both for Lillian,” says Mattes. “Generally we decided to get the dog because of the safety aspects, but the therapeutic part will affect me as much as Lillian. When I’m doing things that I have to take care of, like mowing the lawn, I’ll know that the dog is with her. I’ve been having my own health problems because of the stress and anxiety.” As Lillian matures, she shows more extreme emotional behavior, her mother says, and the service dog will sense her emotions before she becomes so upset that she hurts herself. “Service dogs aren’t just rewarding for the child. They’re rewarding for the whole family,” says Mattes. “I’m very excited.” The Union Springs Lions have stayed in touch with the Mattes since the breakfast. They have invited them to events, and they have expressed interest in meeting the family’s addition when he or she arrives. “They’ve been wonderful,” says Mattes. “The Lord has blessed us with Union Springs and the kind people who have helped us.” —Joan Cary GEORGE COOKE Tavares, Florida Finding the Exact Right Doctor His vision was fine. Or so he thought. “You have macular degeneration,” the doctor told him. “I had never heard of it,” says George Cooke, 84, of Tavares, Florida. “I had the worst kind−the wet form.” A hemorrhage had already erupted under his left eye. Dr. Michael Tolentino told him that, if left untreated, the condition would spread and destroy his retina. Cooke immediately thought of a longtime friend who had awoken one morning completely blind in one eye. Blindness was something that circled at the periphery of Cooke’s life in other ways. In college at Michigan State he volunteered, reading textbooks to blind students. While working in New York City, he traveled on the subway and saw people who were blind navigating the transit system. What fortitude they had. But him? He wasn’t sure he could deal with it. His sight was precious: reading and writing were part of his identity. He founded a poetry magazine in New Jersey, published a book on Gershwin and worked as a senior librarian at the New York Public Library. Cooke was not taking any chances. He had sought out Tolentino, a renowned ophthalmologist. Harvard-trained, he founded and directed the Center for Retina and Macular Disease in Lakeland. Tolentino had helped develop Avastin, the drug most commonly used for treating macular degeneration. Cooke happened to tell Tolentino he was a longtime Lion. Tolentino’s eyes widened. The Lions gave us the money to develop Avastin, he told Cooke. “Lions took a chance on us. Nobody else would do that.” Life is good now for Cooke, a Mount Dora Lion. He drives his wife into town for shopping and movies. He reads his books. He rests comfortably at night knowing when life throws you a curveball, well, he didn’t strike out because of Lions. −Jay Copp DARALEEN WEBBER Hardeeville, South Carolina Seeing a Better Tomorrow For 21 years, Daraleen Webber has been riding the bus two hours a day, an hour each way to and from her home in Hardeeville, South Carolina, to waitress and host at the Hilton Head Diner. She was never able to drive because of her poor vision. But now, thanks to Lions, she may see easier days ahead. A single mom, Webber has worked day and night, holidays and weekends to raise four daughters alone and to make sure they could go to college. When a columnist at The Island Packet, a local paper, wrote about her inspirational devotion to her children, it went viral. Then came the moment that changed things. A vacationing Lion read about Webber’s plight and contacted the writer to say local Lions might be able to help her with her vision problems. The writer reached out to the Hilton Head Island Noon Lions, and soon Lions saw to it that Webber had an appointment with Past District Governor Jim Kondor, an optometrist at Optical Solutions in Hilton Head. Kondor and his colleague, Dr. Mike Berzansky, discovered that Webber has irregular-shaped corneas. She wasn’t legally blind, but close to it, says Kondor. But special lenses could help. Webber, who has no health insurance, was fitted with lenses that correct her vision to 20/30, allowing her to try for a driver’s license whenever she feels comfortable. She also received new glasses. “I read better now. I watch TV better. I see the whole world with a different point of view,” says Webber. “I never gave up the fight to do what I could do for my kids.” Three of Webber’s daughters have earned their college degree and are furthering their education, and Webber is now envisioning a life where she can drive. “I’ll never be able to thank the Lions enough for what they’ve done for me,” she says. Two other bits of good news came out of Webber’s situation. Both Webber and Berzansky became Lions in September, and the club is planning a spring symposium for other eye doctors in the area to highlight the need for eye care. “I have a feeling that for every Daraleen out there, there are 10 or 11 people who have given up on care or can’t afford care,” says Kondor. “We might be able to help those people.” —Joan Cary LANIE JANIKOWSKI Bowman, North Dakota ‘Souper Bowl’ Supports Therapeutic Riding Camie Janikowski was driving her special needs daughter, Lanie, 150 miles a week so she could ride a horse. The Janikowskis are ranchers near the small town of Bowman in southwest North Dakota, and there are no Special Olympics or anything like it close to them. But now, says Janikowski, “Everything we wanted has come true.” Hope and Healing Therapeutic Riding opened near Bowman last year with the help of the Bowman Lions who hosted a “Souper Bowl” soup and sandwich benefit to support the nonprofit. Lanie,11, goes every Tuesday to ride. The horseback riding has multiple benefits. Lanie’s vocabulary has improved, as well as her balance and her core strength. “It has helped her confidence and self-esteem. She’s very proud of herself and proud of what she’s able to do,” says her mother. “It lets her feel independent.” Hope and Healing works with children and adults with social, cognitive, emotional and behavior disabilities, says founder Robyn Mrnak. LISA JOHNSON Omaha, Nebraska Seeing Again—For the Third Time Just a few weeks after her September corneal transplant, Lisa Johnson reports colors getting sharper and faces being clearer. Her voice shows both guarded relief and joy. “I hope this is successful,” she says. “I love seeing my children grow up.” The 38-year-old mother of seven had begun losing her vision in March when her youngest child was just nine months old. It began with occasional moments of blurriness. But every day the moments lasted longer, and the fear of what was coming grew stronger. Johnson knew she was becoming blind again. She is no stranger to the sadness and difficulties that come with blindness or, conversely, the joy of sight. This most recent transplant, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, was Johnson’s seventh, her third successful transplant in 16 years. Born blind, diagnosed with glaucoma, Johnson grew up in central Wisconsin and attended Wisconsin Lions Camp for blind children, never dreaming that one day she would see. But through the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin, life changed when she was 22, when she had her first successful transplant that lasted six years. In 2008, after her third pregnancy, Johnson lost her vision again. And in 2009, she followed up with her second successful transplant. “I want to be the one who defines my life,” she explains now. Onstage at the 2009 International Convention in Minnesota, she thanked Lions for the gift of sight, telling them, “You make miracles happen every day. You are there for people when you don’t even know who they are.” Lisa and her husband, Jeremy, were there with their three small children and plans to further their educations. Today the Johnsons juggle life in Omaha with busy careers and seven children ages 18 months to 12. They earned their doctorate degrees together as planned, and Lisa works at Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha where she helps disabled low-income students graduate and connect with community resources. Family, her Catholic faith and her own penchant for meeting challenges head-on has gotten her through the stresses of repeated transplants. Each of the four unsuccessful attempts failed for different reasons but was followed with the same disappointment and devastation. “It’s not that I can’t function as someone who is blind. I have a cane. I know Braille. I know I’ll be just fine,” she says. “But when I’m not able to see the artwork my children bring home from school, when they say ‘Look, Mom’ and I am unable to see it, well, it tugs at your heart.” At first she worried that her children might experience the same difficulties she’s had, and she’s not talking about blindness, she says. She’s talking about discrimination, about life being harder, about people who say ridiculous, hurtful things to people with disabilities. But the Johnson children are healthy. None have vision problems. “Lions made it possible for me to see my children and to do a lot of things,” she says. “Even now, I don’t ever take that for granted. There isn’t a day when I am not thankful. Lions do powerful, important things, and I will never forget that.” —Joan Cary
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