CINCINNATI -- A decade ago, Steve Ogletree, a manager at a Sam's Club, was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy.
Noticing that Steve was losing most of his vision, his doctor at the Cincinnati Eye Institute referred him to the Cincinnati Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired (CABVI), an organization that teaches the blind/visually impaired skills to adapt to vision loss.
CABVI has been providing counseling, rehabilitation, information and employment services to people in the Greater Cincinnati area for 105 years and will begin expanding, with the purchase of a new building, in early 2017.
Ogletree is one of their biggest success stories and a role model.
"When I came here, I came in with the attitude of ‘Instead of saying Why me? I said Try me,' and I took advantage of almost all the services they had," said Ogletree, 48, a Finneytown resident.
Ogletree lives with his wife, Mimi, and has three sons -- Steve, 17, Nick, 15, and Jacob, 11. Just before the birth of his third son, Ogletree was given the news that he was going to lose his eyesight. It made him more determined to succeed in life with this disability.
"I had to learn how to totally live a whole new life without sight. I learned adaptive life skills as CABVI staff came to my home and taught me how to cook and clean around the house. I took advantage of computer training. I had to learn mobility, how to walk with a white cane."
Ogletree was so impressed with CABVI that he decided to stay on as an employee. He is a palletizer at CABVI.
And he is just the kind of client who chooses to excel with adaptive skills and training to adapt to vision loss.
The organization's mission statement vows to empower people who are blind or visually impaired with opportunities to seek independence. Visually impaired means that they have severe vision loss or are legally blind. Less than 1 percent of the American population is blind; visual impairment can result from aging, illnesses like diabetes or glaucoma or injury.
The ages of those seeking services and assistance range from 6 months to centenarians.
CABVI serves over 5,000 people annually with services and has 171 total employees working for it.
The Industries Program employs 71 people at their Gilbert Avenue location in their main building. These employees create products that range from duct tape to sticky notes to kitchen gadgets.
The clean, uncluttered building -- which is infused with natural light -- is no different than any other building. The only concession made to accommodate clients are the black borders throughout the building to highlight the hallways so that those with limited vision can find their way more easily.
The passion and dedication of the organization has been well-matched with the determination and drive of its CEO John Mitchell, whose goal is to ensure "full lives and community inclusion" for all those who are blind or visually impaired.
"I get a great deal of satisfaction in working with the individuals and people who can use a hand up, and working with a great group of individuals who also work for this organization as we collectively work to assist people," said Mitchell, who has been with the agency for 17 years but has worked with the blind for 31 years.
For Mitchell, working with people with special needs was an easy choice.
"I grew up with parents who instilled the values of compassion and taught me to have an impact on the world and hopefully change the world a little," he said.
Under his leadership and hard work, CABVI has thrived and is expanding. In July, it purchased an additional 59,000-square-foot building on Kenner Street, which was partly funded by a generous estate gift from a grateful client, Carolyn (Voss) Hornbeck, who died at the age of 93 in April 2015.
This building, with its space and capacity for production operations, will help CABVI to continue its goal of providing more employment opportunities for the blind and the visually impaired.
CABVI has also signed on to some new partnerships with companies like MN8 Firefox and the Kroger Co. CABVI workers will produce MN8 photo-luminescent exit signs, which Kroger will use in stores nationwide.
This partnership, along with assembly of new OXO International items for the National Industries for the Blind Military Resale program, and production of sticky notes and door locks for the State of Ohio's Office of Procurement through Community Rehabilitation Programs, all help CABVI address the 65% unemployment rate for people with severe vision loss.
CABVI is also creating more service-sector jobs for people with severe vision loss through its office supplies distribution service, VIE Ability. With 40,000+ items available online at VIE-Ability.org, customers enjoy very competitive prices and free next-day delivery.
And while Mitchell, the board, the volunteers and staff focus on employment and skills to thrive, there is another important milestone they wish to reach: They want society to treat blind people just like everyone else.
"Equality and full community inclusion," Mitchell said. "We need to be advocates and leaders for that. All things are possible. It just takes drive, determination and a hand up. Blindness knows no bounds.
"But full community inclusion is a huge part of our mission, " he added, "because with vision loss, isolation can occur and people treat you differently. So it's trying to get people over the hump, so that everyone realizes that you are still a human being, still a person. It's just that their vision doesn't work."
Mitchell holds up Ogletree as a great success story for the organization. He is also CABVI's public policy advocate and often goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for employment programs for people with severe vision loss.
A friendly, upbeat man, Ogletree walks around the office with his white cane, happily chatting to all.
He wants people to know that being blind is "just different, not better or worse."
And he thinks that if you are blind or visually impaired, you should come to CABVI for services.
"I have personally witnessed that the staff here are caring, concerned and compassionate," Ogletree said.
"Here, we operate as a TEAM, which stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. I have got three young men to be an example for. Getting knocked down in life is a given; moving forward is a choice. At the drop of a dime your life can change. Learn to deal with it."
Patsy Baughn, a development specialist, adds that while advances in technology like computers with magnification and speech software have made life easier for people who are blind and visually impaired, the training has taken it to the next level.
"We have a deeply loyal committed staff and volunteers. The great community support has made this organization strong and ready to move forward," she said.
"We really appreciate it. We always welcome volunteers."
Ogletree couldn't resist adding a pun.
"I hope this is an eye-opening story," he quipped.
For information about CABVI, call (513) 221-8558 or visit cincyblind.org.