NAPLES, Fla. – Sarah Hardwig recently played tennis at her summer camp – a typical camp activity, right? Not for nine-year-old Hardwig who’s been legally blind since birth. The camp Hardwig attended is for visually impaired children, the only one of its kind in Collier County. The tennis? They use a sound ball so the kids can hear it coming at them.
The camp is offered through Lighthouse of Collier County, a nonprofit providing programs that foster independence and enhance the quality of life for the blind, visually impaired and their caregivers. It’s just one of the programs that Realtor® Kathleen Peck, GRI, volunteer executive director of Lighthouse and a broker-associate with All in One Realty Group in Naples, developed to help those who have impaired vision or are blind.
It all started in 2006. “In July 2006, I suddenly lost my eyesight to a rare eye disease,” says Peck. A year later—compelled to seek support for her condition—Peck attended a group meeting at a community center. “Support for the blind was lacking in our community,” she says.
A leadership council was formed to research the idea. “It was a diverse group of 16 individuals—visually impaired and sighted,” says Peck. The group quickly discovered that there was an estimated 14,000 individuals in Collier County who needed services that currently weren’t available. It took two years of meetings, organizing, fundraising and hard work before Lighthouse opened its doors in 2009. And Peck was the driving force behind it all—singlehandedly raising a majority of the money necessary to open the Lighthouse doors.
“It’s because of Kathleen’s drive that we were able to do what’s been tried several times before, but failed. It’s challenging, so it’s so easy to give up, but Kathleen is relentless and passionate,” says Bill Mercer, the volunteer director of operations for Lighthouse and a close friend of Peck’s.
Through early donations from The Great Dock Canoe Race, an annual event that raises money for local charities, Lighthouse’s first summer camp was started. “We had two children in our first summer camp,” says Peck. “This year (the third year), we had 12.” The four-week-long day camp for children 4 to 14 years old is held every summer in donated space at the Naples Beach Hotel.
“We partner with other nonprofits for field trips, such as the Naples Equestrian Challenge, which provides therapeutic horseback riding,” says Peck.
One the more popular camp activities is tennis. “I read about this person in Japan who invented an audible tennis ball (called Soundball Tennis),” says Peck. “So, I found a way to get it and worked with a local tennis center to have some of the pros teach the children how to play.”
As with any charity, raising money is always a challenge. So, Peck built a marketing packet based on her real estate marketing presentations, and her team rallied, visiting friends and asking for money. They raised some $200,000 to get the program off the ground.
Then, a friend asked Peck if she would consider an “ask” campaign. “It’s a very targeted campaign where each year you send a handwritten letter to certain friends,” she says. The first year, in 2010, they raised $16,000. The second year, they raised $25,000.
“We’re on our third year, and we have a goal of $45,000,” she says.
In addition, Lighthouse was recently awarded a grant to serve blind adults. “We’ve been aggressively trying to raise money for the children, too,” she says.
It was during the early fund-raising campaign that a local developer, Bayfront, donated office space for Lighthouse. Peck is currently working on a capital campaign in order to establish a more permanent home.
Through its current office, Lighthouse of Collier County offers free classes in independent living skills, an orientation/ability training class (how to navigate with a support cane or a guide dog), an assisted technology class (how to use technology to read), a class for caregivers and the annual children’s camp. The independent living skills class alone serves at least 60 people a year and provides strategies for managing everyday tasks. “After the class, a vision rehab therapist comes to each student’s home and installs bump dots on appliances so they can navigate,” says Peck.
For Peck, Lighthouse has helped her as much as it has others. “The assisted technology class helped me figure out how to use a combination of tools so that I can still do business,” says Peck, who—due to her disability—only works with past clients. “Naples has a lot of out-of-town buyers, and most of them want a real estate agent who can drive them around. Obviously, I can’t do that. But, a lot of my past clients insist they want me and are willing to drive me around,” laughs Peck.
In addition to her real estate career, she’s working up to 60 hours a week on outreach and fundraising for the growing charity. Since its inception in 2009, Lighthouse has helped over 300 visually impaired adults and children, as well as their families and caregivers.
“We have over 100 volunteers and it means so much to know we’ve touched so many people—both sighted and visually impaired,” she says. “We’re providing services for those who need them and deserve them. These are people who feel they can’t even go into a restaurant anymore, and we’re giving them the strategies they need to go out into the world and live a normal life. It just feels good.”
Parts of this story were excerpted with permission from the original article published by the National Association of Realtors.
Not only is Kathleen Peck passionate about strengthening her community, she also is a dedicated Realtor who has taken additional education courses to enhance her knowledge and expertise. She holds the professional designation of Graduate, Realtor Institute (GRI).