There are occasions when the blind lead the blind, moments that their inner lights truly shine.
Thirty-two years ago in the City of Cedars, Christine Beasley and her late husband, James, initiated Sight Seekers, a support group for the blind or nearly blind. Christine, known to her friends as Chris, continues to lead the group, which boasts 15 to 20 members who congregate for fellowship and meal every second Thursday of the month (except January and February) at Market Street Church of Christ.
A few times throughout the year they dine at local restaurants and may even take a short excursion out of town.
Beasley, 81, started the group so the members can sit down face to face and encourage each other and learn from one another.
“We talk about everything, and people tell about losing their sight and how they’ve accepted it. When I lost my sight, I went through a state of denial, but I got a lot of support from my church family,” Beasley said. “Carolyn McGill, who worked for Services of the Blind as a rehab teacher, had a thread and needle for me, and she said, “You’re going to thread this needle.’ So, I learned how to do that. She taught me that before I hung my clothes out on the line to set a radio on the back porch and to follow the sound back to my back door.”
Rodger Hunt, 79, who surrendered his car keys 17 years ago, is grateful to have a circle of friends like Sight Seekers around him.
“It’s a group of people that have the same problems. You can talk about it, and you can laugh and kid and joke. And when we’ve got somebody that’s sick, we try to give them attention, or if somebody passes away, we try to give the family support,” he said.
“I just enjoy the group and people I talk with and sometimes am able to help somebody there when they’re a little bit down. I don’t get down much myself. I’ve learned to accept it and live with it day by day.”
Inspiration for Sight Seekers
Beasley, the daughter of Ed and Dollie Hancock, grew up on a farm with nine siblings on Cainsville Road and attended grammar school at Leemon’s Corner. After the eighth grade she went to Wilson County High School, where she graduated in 1956. She then went to work at Alyene’s Beauty Salon before enlisting with Precision Rubber in 1964 in the finishing department.
“I worked there 19 years. I had to come out with my eyes. I got glaucoma. That’s why I can’t see. I was going to a doctor in Nashville but not a specialist, and my eyes kept getting a little bit worse and worse. I lost vison in the right eye, and it kept going slowly in my left eye,” said Beasley, who taught Sunday School classes for first-through-fourth graders at Market Street Church of Christ until blindness forced her to stop.
She contacted Services for the Blind, which connected her with Second Sight, a support group in Nashville, and took Braille classes. She was befriended by a counselor in Gallatin named Martha Clark, who told her, “I know you want to see, but you can live and still motivate a lot of blind people out there younger than yourself.”
At that time Beasley enjoyed engaging with folks at the Lebanon Senior Center that met on Coles Ferry Pike, which was where she caught a van every other Monday to travel to Second Sight. In 1987, she was inspired to begin an association for those with vision difficulties in Wilson County.
“I went to Brothers A.C. Wharton and Freddie White, the elders at Market Street Church, and I told them what I wanted to meet once a month at the church building, and they said that would be fine. Carolyn McGill and Sally Dunn were rehab teachers, and Bobbie and J.W. Beasley came to the church building and oversaw us. We came up with the name Sight Seekers. We had cooking classes, and Elizabeth Johnson came in and helped us make crafts,” she recalled. “We had about 10 original members.”
Among those were Lois Atkinson, Charlotte Alsup, Joanne Lyman, Anita Cummings, Ruby Davis, Siddie M. Carter, Annie Seay, Ruthie Catron, Dottie Gordon and a Mrs. MacDonald and a Mr. Webb. Her husband, James, to whom she was wed 54 years until his death in 2017, was all in as well.
The group is comprised mostly of women with the age span running from 40 to 85. At monthly get-togethers, besides the conversation and food, they often work on craft projects like belts, keychains, placemats and necklaces.
“I enjoy doing this. It’s rewarding for me to know I’m helping someone else. We have a lot of fun and joking, but we get serious too,” said Beasley, whose niece, Lynn Starks, also is a member of Sight Seekers.
Helping the community
Mt. Juliet’s Janice Waters, who goes by the nickname of Cookie, has been with Sight Seekers nine years. She is legally blind due to thyroid eye disease, aka Grays disease, that settled in her eyes in 2004.
She discovered Sight Seekers when her vision was good and she was caretaking a woman who was legally blind and could not drive. Waters drove the woman to Sight Seeker meetings.
Said Waters, “I’ve been helping with members that are totally blind and have been for a long time. I enjoy implementing programs, organizing things for the members to do like arts and crafts and taking the groups on trips. We’ve taken the train to Riverfront Park, ridden the General Jackson showboat and been to Octoberfest in Carthage and eaten at Sunset Restaurant and Outback Steakhouse. We have people come and talk to us and share information that we ordinarily wouldn’t have.
“Mrs. Beasley lives for this group. She’s the backbone. She is so passionate about it. She started this group because there was nothing in place in Lebanon when she lost her vision. It’s a support group that we all needed.”
Ralph Adams, 68, has been in Sight Seekers 10 years. He was born premature and blind with a disease called retrolental fibroplasia. The native of Tracy City left his home at the age of 6 to attend the Tennessee School for Blind in Donelson, where he graduated in 1969.
After receiving training at a special unit for the blind in Smyrna, he ventured to Morristown in East Tennessee where he worked for Volunteer Blind Industries from 1987 to 1995. Later he lived in a group home in Kodak and then in a private home for seven years before moving to Lebanon in August 2009.
“When I first came here, I got in touch with the Middle Tennessee Council for the Blind and found out from them about Sight Seekers. It gets you out and around different people for a while. We love good fellowship and being together. We call ourselves a group, not a club. You don’t have to be blind to be a member of Sight Seekers, but it’s for the blind,” Adams said.
“They have people who come in and talk to us, like a lady from Services for the Blind who tells us about new things available for the blind who are living by themselves,” he said.
Annette Neal of Lebanon is married to Beasley’s nephew and been involved as a volunteer with Sight Seekers the past two years.
“When I first started helping out, I learned so much from people that have different types of vision problems. I’ve learned that just because this is one of their impairments, it doesn’t stop them from enjoying life. It’s a wonderful club with a bunch of wonderful people,” Neal said.
“Chris is the founder and her husband, James, helped her until the day he died. The two of them started it and began recruiting members. When she lost her vison, I think that’s where her inspiration came from. My husband, Michael Neal, helps too. Sometime we go on field trips and he does the driving. He drove them this past fall to a festival in Carthage so they could enjoy outdoors with music and just being among everybody.”
Hunt, 79, who has lived in Wilson County off and on for 18 years, came here from California and took up permanent residence in Lebanon 10 years ago. While in the midst of going back and forth to Los Angeles, he asked his stepdaughter to try and find a local support group for blind people.
“She discovered Sight Seekers, and I made the call and ended up talking with Mrs. Beasley. She asked me to come to their next meeting, and I’ve been coming ever since,” recollected Hunt, who discovered he had glaucoma when he was 40.
“It hit in 1980 and happened very slowly. They do not how to stop it or what causes it. My understanding is that it has to do with nerve endings going from eye to the brain. I drove until 2002 and then some friends took my keys away and said no more driving.”
About Sight Seekers’ guiding light, he says, “Chris gives 130 percent. She’s quite a lady and really pushes it. Cookie and I try to be Mrs. Beasley’s right arm and help to do whatever we can do. We have one heck of a good time and sing some songs and eat and it’s always been a lot of fun. What Chris has done and held together is nothing fancy. We’re just a bunch of people who can’t see so good.”
SIGHT SEEKERS LOW VISION SUPPORT GROUP
The group meets the second Thursday of the month, except for January and February, at Market Street Church of Christ (502 E. Market St. in Lebanon). For information call Christine Beasley at (615) 444-8272.