RALEIGH — Sharon Giovinazzo strides into the foyer, pierces you with her hazel eyes, offers a warm handshake. You might not notice the white cane tucked under her arm, like a symphony conductor's baton, if not for the prominent sign at the entrance: Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind.
Then Giovinazzo begins a chatty tour of the manufacturing facility and life-skills training center. She glides down corridors and zips through doorways. She nimbly weaves her way through a maze where rows of workers - many of them blind - operate sewing machines and stitch military uniforms, bags and other gear.
People joke about the blind leading the blind, but that might well sum up the mission of RLCB. Giovinazzo, 40, was recruited from a lobbying position in Washington and oversees fundraising, programs, services and events at this Raleigh nonprofit with nine offices and nearly 300 employees.
She has been totally blind since multiple sclerosis took her sight in 2001, when she was 31. Her quick rebound to overcome blindness and lead a highly productive life lends her the status of a living testament to the social benefits of agencies like the one she now helps administer.
She achieved most of her accomplishments - a college degree, two master's degrees, Capitol Hill lobbyist - in less than a decade, after she lost her vision.
"There's the before-blind life and the after-blind life," Giovinazzo said. "Maybe it took losing focus to get a focus, the loss of vision to gain a vision."
Giovinazzo has adapted naturally as a role model for the blind, but the before part of her story is usually glossed over in her speeches, presentations and interviews.
"You don't know what tough is when it comes to her," said her husband, Joe Giovinazzo. "She had nothing - that's her drive."
Learning her history
She grew up in central Florida, and not until age 8 did she learn that her older sister was actually her biological mother and had given birth at age 13. Giovinazzo's "parents" turned out to be her grandparents, who adopted her at birth and brought her up.
Giovinazzo doesn't know who her biological father is. Giovinazzo last saw her mother when she was 12 years old.
Giovinazzo excelled in school and won two full scholarships to the University of Florida and University of Alabama. However, acting on her grandmother's concerns that the scholarships wouldn't cover additional expenses the family wouldn't be able to afford, Giovinazzo joined the U.S. Army and trained to become a combat medic.
After the Army, Giovinazzo struggled to gain a sure footing in life. For several months, when in her early 20s, the former high school salutatorian lived out of her Buick station wagon while working a sales job at a janitorial supplies store. By this time life had grown more complicated: She now had an infant son.
She next moved to Alaska and worked for auto dealerships as a service clerk. Giovinazzo relied on the Salvation Army for furniture for her apartment and scoured the local dump for a few luxury items, like a lamp and a TV.
It was during this time that Giovinazzo met her future husband, who managed a fleet of government vehicles for the U.S. General Services Administration and had them serviced at local auto centers in Fairbanks, including the one where she worked. Joe Giovinazzo said she immediately impressed him as tough and aggressive. The Giovinazzos later moved to upstate New York, where she achieved a measure of stability working as a nurse in a nursing home.
Then came the monster headaches and blurred vision. She was hospitalized repeatedly, sometimes spending more than a month in the hospital. In a keynote speech she gave last month in Albany, N.Y., at a conference of that state's Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, Giovinazzo described the pain "as if someone had my head in a trash compactor and would not release the button."
"My vision and self-esteem both diminished on a daily basis," she said.
Within about seven months in 2001, her vision deteriorated from blur to haze to twilight until one day she was engulfed in total darkness. Before she had lost all her vision, she started receiving assistance from the Central Association for the Blind, a sister agency to the RLCB.
"You go through the stages; I spent some time in 'that river of Egypt,' " she said. "I had no marketable skills as a blind person."
Giovinazzo credits the instructors, courses and training opportunities with redirecting her life - causes to which she has dedicated her relatively short professional career. Before joining the RLCB she worked for the National Industries for the Blind, the Washington umbrella group for 85 agencies such as the RLCB and the Central Association in New York state.
Her first job was at the Central Association, packing rubber gloves. She was later promoted to sewing sheets, towels and pillowcases for state prisons and hospitals. In less than four years, she advanced to public policy and consumer relations associate.
Her teachers took note early of her fierce determination. Don LoGuidice, who recently retired as director of the Central Association, said Giovinazzo stood out for her "positive attitude, perseverance and her desire not to feel sorry for herself."
She threw herself into learning a new set of survival skills, using public transportation, taking up Braille and learning how to use computers with voice software. Today she relies on the speech-enhanced computers and sends and receives e-mail on her iPhone.
"She doesn't want anybody to know she's blind," her husband said. "What you have to do to get her to do something is say: 'A blind person can't do that.' She hates that."
The Raleigh connection
By the time Giovinazzo met Janet Griffey, CEO of the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind, she was well into her rehabilitation and enrolled in a University of Virginia business management program in 2005. By then, Giovinazzo projected the image of a high achiever, not the struggling single mom whose husband-to-be had once dubbed the "dipsy Dumpster diver."
"I saw her drive," Griffey said. "I thought: I'd give anything to have her on my team."
Giovinazzo began her job in Raleigh in January. As much as she thrived in the heady atmosphere of Washington, she said she was sold on the opportunity to provide direct services to the blind. Since she started, she created a 16-session online course that teaches workplace skills.
She's also planning to expand the RLCB's call center by increasing the staff of seven agents and supervisors at least fourfold. The center provides customer satisfaction surveys and product promotions on a contract basis.
In addition to the Raleigh manufacturing site, RLCB operates six military base supply stores as far away as Alaska, and a Veterans Administration switchboard to handle calls and emergency dispatches in Kentucky. RLCB is opening a 10th facility next year, a supply center at the Belle Chasse Naval base near New Orleans.
As Giovinazzo gives a tour of the RLCB, she makes chit-chat with the line workers who operate industrial cutting machines and sit at sewing stations. Occasionally a seeing eye dog, lying patiently on the floor, looks up to investigate who's passing by.
"Many of the people we serve have had a lifetime of lowered expectations," she said. "I can have a different level of empathy just because of where I've been."
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