Remaining focused is key to blind man's independent life

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It's hard to picture Willie Jones as an angry man.

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Willie Jones (left) helps Marcus Clayton with his computer skills at Clayton's Augusta home. Mr. Jones has been blind for more than 30 years and helps other visiually impaired individuals with computers.  Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Willie Jones (left) helps Marcus Clayton with his computer skills at Clayton's Augusta home. Mr. Jones has been blind for more than 30 years and helps other visiually impaired individuals with computers.

Gregarious, charming, easygoing are all words that describe him. But angry?

It's hard to picture him not smiling.

"I was terrible," Jones insisted. "Very mean."

This "terrible" Jones woke up in a hospital in 1974 with his face wrapped in bandages. He had been unconscious for two weeks.

All he could see with his remaining left eye were glimmers of light. Faces were an indistinct blur.

Had he the ability to see his reflection, though, Jones would have seen rows of stitches crisscrossing his face like railroad tracks. That happens when you fly face-first through a windshield.

Jones was told he crashed under a bridge on Gordon Highway near Grovetown. He had been drinking that night.

"I don't blame anybody but myself for what happened," he said.

He rarely left his sister's apartment for six months. The physical sensation of losing his sight, of plunging into an eternal darkness, was terrifying. Jones couldn't shake the feeling someone was in his room with him.

More debilitating, though, was the sudden loss of his independence.

"I was a prideful man," Jones said. "I did not like relying on others for help."

He struggled to learn how to navigate the world again: to eat without spilling food on his shirt, find a bus stop and use the bathroom without making a mess.

The helplessness and fear were a potent mix that Jones lived with for six months after his wreck. It took a visit to a special place to change his life.

Independence

At 11 a.m. on a recent summer day, the air shimmered with the promise of a punishing heat to come. Jones, 65, walked confidently down a cracked sidewalk on the side of Walton Way, traffic swishing by only a couple of feet from his left arm.

Jones' right hand clutched the harness of his guide dog, Hollis, a shaggy golden retriever with floppy ears and a thick cord of a tail. It's only a short distance from Walton Options for Independent Living to the Ninth Street bus stop. Both walked with the ease of routine.

Jones wore a short-sleeve, button-down dress shirt he knows is either white or blue because of the shape of the collar. He picked out his brown slacks based on the button clasp at the waist.

Jones stopped on the street corner and listened to the whoosh of traffic passing in front of him. He can tell it's safe to cross when traffic resumes to his left. Jones measured his steps, searching for a light pole that is his marker for the bus stop.

The bus was already waiting and the driver called out a greeting as Jones patted its side to find the door. He chatted with the driver as he swiped his ticket and took a seat near the door. Hollis lay down under the seat, his long legs stretching into the aisle.

Jones fished a white handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his head, then continued his story:

Six months after the wreck, he started classes at Roosevelt Warm Springs School for Rehabilitation where he re-learned his life skills: ironing and washing clothes, cooking, Braille, walking with a cane.

More importantly, he met his future wife, Sandra, whom he has never seen. A year later, he started taking steps toward independence with a job at a snack bar.

Close calls

Jones and Hollis got off at the downtown bus terminal and picked up their next bus toward North Leg Road.

The bus driver announced each major street they passed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The bus dropped him off on the grassy shoulder of North Leg, near its intersection with Wrightsboro Road. He paused to punch a button on his silver watch and its tinny voice gave him the time.

Crossing this street is trickier than Walton Way because the cars are more spaced out, but Jones and Hollis rely on each other to make it across safely. After listening a few seconds to the sounds of traffic, Jones stepped out into the road and into the path of a car that was closing in quick.

The car slowed and Jones kept moving without knowing about the close call. As his feet picked up the sidewalk and Hollis led him on, Jones talked about the three times he has been hit by cars in similar situations. The most painful incident was when a car ran over his big toe.

A passerby said he thought Jones was just walking his dog.

Staying focused

A five-minute walk brings Jones and Hollis to a collection of duplexes where Minnie Allen lives. The 91-year-old shut-in is also blind, and Jones visits regularly to give her some company. Jones swept the first door Hollis brought him to with his hand.

"She must have taken the wreath off," Jones said quietly.

The identical duplexes confused Hollis and he led Jones to several wrong doors before he finally found Allen's.

Entering her apartment, Jones took short, stilted steps into the room, arms waving in front like a man lost in a pitch black room. It was a surprising moment of vulnerability for someone as confident as Jones.

For the next 45 minutes, Allen gave Jones some good-natured grief while he laughed.

After a lengthy goodbye, Jones set out for the bus stop back to Walton Options. Midsentence, he slammed his right shoulder hard into a column. Hollis wasn't paying attention.

Jones wasn't hurt, but he jerked the leash three times and firmly told Hollis "no." He took the dog back and they walked past the column again, this time without incident.

"You just have to focus," Jones said.

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flipa
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flipa 09/12/10 - 11:16 pm
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Willie goes to the prayer

Willie goes to the prayer breakfast up on the hill at Reid Memorial every friday at 7 am. You may want to join him and others to pray for our world. The way things are going it couldn't hurt. Breakfast is $1.50 last time i went.

Sweet son
10398
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Sweet son 09/12/10 - 06:50 pm
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What a great success story.

What a great success story. My father when he retired from Vocational Rehabilitation was workinf exclusively with the blind. He related many stories of the type to me. Good luck Mr. Jones.

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