Dolores Hanley McDiarmid creates opportunities for people living with visual impairment to achieve a greater sense of integration in the community. She leads an inter-faith group that supports personal, employment and spiritual goals of the members. Here is an article on the first of a series of labyrinth walks that have led to powerful and empowering personal growth. Don't miss the great photo at the end of the article!
Walking the Labyrinth: An Innovative Way to Build Community Between People Who Can See and Those Living with Blindness and Visual Impairments
Dolores Hanley McDiarmid
Lighthouse of Broward Outreach Project Coordinator
Most of my professional life has been spent teaching people to navigate more safely and independently as an Orientation and Mobility Specialist. However, in March 2010 my professional path veered into unfamiliar territory with many new ideas to explore.
After receiving a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministries from St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida, I found myself in the unique position of managing a program that addresses the spiritual component in the lives of our clients at Lighthouse of Broward in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That is, for those individuals who are interested in participating in this pioneering adventure.
While managing this program that involves networking in the community I was also in the process of becoming a Certified Facilitator of Labyrinth Walks. For readers unfamiliar with what a labyrinth is, I will provide a brief introduction and description.
The labyrinth is a walking meditation that calms the mind, reduces stress and can be used by people of all different faith traditions and cultures. It is an ancient spiritual tool that is thousands of years old and has been walked by millions of people. It can also be used for self-reflection and community building. Some of the places labyrinths can be found include parks, hospitals, schools, and churches. How it works is mysterious.
I had no idea of how my own introduction to walking labyrinths would lead me onto another new path in my professional life working with people living with blindness and visual impairments. While I was working toward completing the requirements to become a Certified Facilitator of Labyrinth Walks it was natural for me to begin exploring the benefits for our clients at Lighthouse of Broward. Having no idea of what to expect, a labyrinth walk was planned for several clients, their family and friends.
On November 27, 2010 several clients of Lighthouse of Broward participated in their first labyrinth walk at the Duncan Conference Center in Delray Beach, Florida. Participants able to see the color contrast in the labyrinth design navigated the walk independently while others required a sighted guide.
Following the labyrinth walk a telephone interview was conducted to evaluate each participant’s experience. The results indicated that it was a positive and meaningful experience and everyone was interested in another labyrinth walk in the future.
Some of their comments included the following:
· It was very calming
· It was peaceful; we were together like a family and it felt like we were one
· It took my mind off of things
· I have not felt so centered in a long time
· It was a wonderful experience
· Walking the labyrinth together and sharing experiences is a great opportunity for fellowship
Since this first labyrinth walk for our clients was a positive and meaningful experience I decided to identify, create and implement additional opportunities for them to walk the labyrinth. A friend of mine who is also a Certified Facilitator of Labyrinth Walks had just conducted a labyrinth walk at her faith community using a temporary labyrinth built from small pieces of wood and yellow plastic construction tape. We asked, and received permission by the rector to bring a few clients to the site for a labyrinth walk.
One of my professional goals is identifying and creating opportunities in the community that can include people living with visual impairments or blindness in order to promote a greater sense of integration into the community. This was one of those opportunities.
During the labyrinth walk, my friend Gillian guided one of the clients while I guided the other client needing assistance. The client using a guide dog left her dog tied down in the shade within viewing distance. The following are testimonies from the two ladies who walked the labyrinth.
“My name is Twila. I am visually impaired and am involved at Lighthouse of Broward. Before I walked the labyrinth today I was feeling down, depressed and frustrated. I was feeling overwhelmed thinking about the illnesses my adult children are experiencing. Physically, my legs were weak and shaky and I was wondering how I would walk the labyrinth.
Then I entered the labyrinth and about 1/3 of the way through a song came to me. I can’t recall the name at this moment. When I heard this song in my head I knew God was there. I was starting to feel better. As I continued walking the labyrinth I started to feel my legs getting stronger and I was able to experience the entire labyrinth walk.
When I reached the center of the labyrinth and stood there I felt like a new person and felt like all will be well. I thanked God for the experience of the walk, enjoyed the surroundings, and felt completely enveloped in the beautiful Memorial Garden at St. Benedict’s.”
“My name is Alma and I have been legally blind all my life. In the last 10 years I have dramatically lost the remaining vision I have had. Starting our walk, I came to a place where the sun was shining directly through the trees. I felt the warmth of the sun shining on my face. I wondered if this was like seeing God’s face. I felt joy and comfort and really wanted to just stand there and absorb the experience. We continued our walk and I noticed that same warmth and comfort was on my shoulders. I felt like God had His arms around me. Almost at the end of our walk I experienced a life shaping thought. God was telling me to just let go, just let it go. I was truly at peace.”
As a result of this particular labyrinth walk at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, my friend Gillian is now interested in participating in future events with people who are living with blindness and visual impairments. Through just a few experiences getting to know some clients she has developed a greater comfort level to interact with people who are blind and visually impaired.
During this labyrinth walk at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, the clients experienced being welcomed in the community, and someone who is sighted is now willing and interested in including people who are blind and sight impaired into their worship services and/or other church events. In this case, a wall has come down and a bridge has been built.
A second opportunity to have a labyrinth walk was identified. We called it “The First Community Labyrinth Walk for the Blind and Sight Impaired.” This community event involved some of the ladies from St. Anthony Catholic Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
One evening was spent educating the ladies about the labyrinth in preparation for their first labyrinth walk. They viewed a video followed by a question and answer period to determine if they were interested in participating in the event.
On Saturday, April 28, 2012 the ladies interested in walking the labyrinth from St. Anthony Catholic Church went to Lighthouse of Broward. We met for a short meet and greet session to become acquainted with the clients who would be participating in the labyrinth walk. After getting to know a little about one another the clients were assigned to vehicles and everyone traveled north to the Duncan Conference Center in Delray Beach.
Planning and implementing a labyrinth walk requires the assistance of other people trained to facilitate these walks. Fortunately, a women who had been in the same labyrinth training session as Gillian and I in 2009, was able to help with this event. Like many people who for the first time are asked to help with an event that includes people who are blind, Beth was apprehensive but agreed to participate in what would be a new and rewarding experience for her.
Following the labyrinth walk, Beth shared that it was a great experience, being involved in the labyrinth walk with people living with blindness and visual impairments. She felt honored to be invited and plans to participate in future events and labyrinth walks. She enjoyed meeting the clients from Lighthouse of Broward and expressed that it was an enriching opportunity for the participants who are sighted as well as for the clients.
The clients shared with her all the Lighthouse of Broward has done and continues to do for those needing rehabilitation, enabling them to move forward in their lives. Beth learned how invaluable the services are that the Lighthouse of Broward provides. As a result of this new experience, Beth plans to visit the agency, take a tour and learn more about the Lighthouse of Broward.
The following are three testimonies from the clients.
One young girl was enlightened when she discovered she is walking with more fear than she realized.
Another participant was reminded to live life one step at a time and enjoy the moments leading to the destination. A short time ago she had a miscarriage and isolated herself from her friends and people in the church community. During the walk she came to the realization that in times of crisis she will be more centered if she is in community with friends and people who love her rather than to isolate herself.
One man who is blind and who was guided through the labyrinth walk without his cane came to realize that the walk was a preparation for him going to the guide dog school to learn how to travel with a dog guide.
A beautiful testimony from Tracey Bartholomew from St. Anthony says “What stood out for me was following in the footsteps behind a sight impaired/blind person who was walking directly in front of me. I found myself thinking about their journey, one I couldn’t possibly imagine. I felt an overwhelming connection to them, through the sharing of this journey. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the sight impaired person in front of me was actually leading me to the center, to God, a God we share, no matter where we all come from.”
For me, the labyrinth walk is a metaphor or symbol of real life and this “First Community Labyrinth Walk for the Blind and Sight Impaired” has been very significant for me. The past two and a half years of my professional life has focused on creating opportunities for clients to be more involved in the community in order to network and build relationships that can lead to volunteer or employment opportunities. Walking the labyrinth is one way this can happen.
One of the ladies from St. Anthony, Nina Bertke, summarized the labyrinth walk quite beautifully. “To me, personally, the labyrinth walk represented a microcosm of the larger world we live in. We all share the same physical space, but we are each on our own personal journey. During the span of our life time we interact and share relationships with family, friends and members of our community. We reach out to help others or seek help from them. We are social beings and need the interaction with one another. Whether in the midst of a labyrinth or of the larger world we live in, we stand as individuals. We as individuals are ultimately responsible for the choices, decisions and actions we make in our lives. Also, in each one of us exist the spark of the ‘Divine.’ That is the common bond that draws us together.”
Everyone is looking forward to the next labyrinth walk, where we can knock down more walls and build bridges between people who are sighted and those living with blindness and visual impairments.