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‘Dining in the Dark’ will enlighten Jack Pomeroy’s schoolmates

The Pomeroy family -- from left, Jack, Ryan, Samb and Heather -- is looking forward to the Dining in the Dark dinner at Willow River Elementary School on Tuesday evening, Feb. 4. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)

It could be a little messy, 8-year-old Jack Pomeroy admits.

Tuesday evening, Feb. 4, 100 people with their eyes blindfolded will sit down to a spaghetti dinner in the Willow River Elementary School cafeteria.

Jack got the idea of holding the Dining in the Dark event after watching a KARE 11 TV report about one organized by a St. Paul boy who also has a retinal eye disease.

Jack has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes degeneration of retina that lines the back inside wall of the eye and is responsible for capturing images. People with the disease experience a gradual decline in their vision because the photoreceptor cells of the retina begin to die.

Jack’s parents, Heather and Ryan Pomeroy, learned that he has the disease as a result of a yearly vision checkup he received going into first grade at Willow River. When the checkup indicated a problem, the Pomeroys were referred to the University of Minnesota Hospital, where Jack was diagnosed with pigmentosa retinitis.

“Of course, we didn’t know what that was. We googled it and found all the scary things,” Heather recalls.

That was a year and a half ago. Jack is now in the second grade.

The U of M doctors asked if Jack had tunnel vision and a hard time seeing at night.

He did have difficulty picking up his toys, and he was quick to turn on the lights, Heather realized. “But we thought, oh gosh, he’s just 6 and lazy.”

Jack wasn’t lazy. He had trouble spotting all his toys in a room.

He is in a regular classroom at Willow River Elementary, but also gets special instruction from the school district’s vision teacher, Micaela Smith. He’s learning to read Braille and use a cane to find his way around.

Retinitis pigmentosa is a progressive disease and Jack will eventually go blind unless a cure is found, which is where Dining in the Dark comes in.

The dinner is a fundraiser for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, an organization that provides money for research to prevent, treat and cure retinal eye diseases.

The event also will raise awareness among Willow River students and their parents about what life is like for Jack and a girl at Willow River Elementary who also is visually impaired.

At 6 p.m., half an hour before sitting down to the meal, the guests will participate in Braille reading, walking an obstacle course blindfolded (aided by a cane) and looking through goggles that simulate what a visually impaired person sees.

Then there’s the dinner where the guests will wear blindfolds.

Heather Pomeroy says Jack’s vision teacher acted quickly when he came to her last school year with the idea of having a Dining in the Dark dinner. Before she knew it, Smith and then Willow River principal Peggy Shoemaker (now the high school principal) were meeting with Jack to talk about his plan.

The school community has embraced the event.

The Willow River Parents Group is purchasing the food. The Willow River cooks have volunteered to prepare the meal. Current Willow River Principal Kimberly Osterhues and a number of teachers will act as servers.

Chris Ashwood, a visually impaired musician who lives in the same neighborhood as the Pomeroys, will provide dinner music.

Heather Pomeroy says that after Jack was diagnosed with the eye disease she recalled meeting Ashwood at a neighborhood block party. She remembered that he also has an eye disease and contacted him by email, asking some questions.

Ashwood has been a great support to the family, Heather says. Jack is taking piano lessons from him and enjoying it.

Ryan Pomeroy, an Air Reserve technician for the 934th Air Lift Wing based at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, says his son is meeting the challenges sent his way.

“(He) does really well in school. (He) enjoys sports as much as everybody else does,” Ryan says.

The Pomeroys moved to their house on Liberty Street eight and a half years ago.

“We were living in St. Paul, and I convinced him to cross the river,” says Heather, a River Falls native. She works three days a week at Children’s Hospital of St. Paul doing administrative work for the Emergency Room physicians.

The Pomeroys also have a 6-year-old son, Sam.

“We’re committed to finding a cure -- and they’re close,” says Heather.

The doctor that Jack sees at the University of Iowa says they’ll be able to fix his eyesight in single-digit years.

“He’s that confident. There’ll be a cure in (Jack’s) lifetime,” she says.

“And if not, that’s OK. You’re learning the tools,” she tells Jack.

The price for Dining in the Dark is $5 per person, no matter what age. Additional donations to the Foundation Fighting Blindness will be welcomed.

Just 100 tickets will be sold. As of a week ago, 40 were remaining. They can be purchased through Friday, Jan. 31, at the Willow River office.

Parents of Willow River students can reserve seats by turning in ticket money to their children’s homeroom teacher. Checks should be written to Foundation Fighting Blindness and placed in an envelope with the family name and the number attending written on it.

The ticket information also is available on the school’s web page, which can be found at

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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