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Guests test their senses ‘Dining in the Dark’

Willow River Elementary students Jack Pomeroy and Sylvia Liberatore have their picture taken with their principal, Kimberly Osterhues. Jack and Sylvia have genetic eye diseases, and are the inspiration for the Dining in the Dark event. (Hudson Star-Observer photos by Randy Hanson) 1 / 9
The Chris and Kelle Anderson family tentatively begins assembling tacos while blindfolded. Sitting next to Chris is his son Nate. The Andersons’ daughter Betsy is next to Kelle. Their son Mitchell isn’t in the photo.2 / 9
Hudson musician Chris Ashwood provides the dinner music. Ashwood was born with a genetic eye condition called ocular albinism that impairs his vision. He’s Jack Pomeroy’s piano teacher.3 / 9
Willow River fifth-grader Elizabeth Yray prepares her taco by touch.4 / 9
Volunteer server Carole Rieg helps a diner locate the ingredients for his taco.5 / 9
Hugh MacMenamin takes a whack at a piñata. The taco dinner had a Hispanic theme. 6 / 9
Liz Halama, left, and her daughter Sophie identify the flavors of the frozen yogurt they’re tasting with their eyes blindfolded. Cherry Berry of Hudson donated the frozen yogurt for the activity. 7 / 9
Kelsie Knewtson and Damon Liberatore, from left, run the Cherry Berry taste test. Liz Halama, right, and her daughter Sophie had just uncovered their eyes to see if they had correctly identified the flavor of frozen yogurt they sampled.8 / 9
The Dining in the Dark event at Willow River Elementary School drew 120 guests. The money raised was donated to the Foundation Fighting Blindness. 9 / 9

Close to 120 people experienced what it’s like to be blind — if only for a short time — during a “Dining in the Dark” event March 11 at Willow River Elementary School in Hudson.

With their eyes blindfolded, the guests sat down to a taco dinner in the school cafeteria. Michaela Smith, the school district’s teacher of students with visual impairments, encouraged the diners to be bold and not worry about getting messy.

Many started hesitantly, cautiously feeling for the ground beef, lettuce and salsa to place in the taco shells.

“Dining in the Dark is a unique event because it shares the tools and skills that people with visual impairments use in a fun and hands-on experience,” Smith said. “It makes a positive impact.”

Many people don’t know someone with a visual impairment and haven’t given much thought to what life is like for the visually impaired, according to Smith.

“The purpose of Dining in the Dark is to raise awareness of blindness and low vision within the school community and the greater Hudson community,” she said. “People with visual impairments can’t just take off a blindfold or wear glasses to make their vision perfect. Mess, fear, success, bravery and learning are a big part of living — with or without a visual impairment.”

Jack Pomeroy, a third-grader at Willow River Elementary, suggested that his school host the event after watching a KARE 11 TV news report about a St. Paul boy who organized one.

Jack, the son of Heather and Ryan Pomeroy, was diagnosed in 2012 with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes degeneration of the retina and leads to a gradual decline in vision.

The first Dining in the Dark event was held in February 2014 with the help of the Willow River Parents Group, the school’s kitchen staff, teachers, other school staff members, local businesses and volunteers.

This year’s event included a silent auction, a visit by a guide dog in training and a number of activities for sighted people to participate in that gave them an idea of what it’s like to have a visual impairment.

Some of the tools used by the 15 students in the Hudson School District who have varying visual impairments also were on display.

Smith said the expanded core curriculum for students with visual impairments covers: self-determination; sensory efficiency; assistive technology; career education; recreation, leisure and independent-living skills; social skills; orientation and mobility; and functional academic skills.

Jack and another Willow River student with a visual impairment, fifth-grader Sylvia Liberatore, are main-streamed in regular classrooms, but receive extra instruction in learning to live with their vision loss.

Heather Pomeroy said Jack has an iPad that connects to the classroom Smartboard. Jack can enlarge the material on his iPad to the size he needs to see it.

He’s also learning to read and write in braille.

Jack’s got a great attitude, his mother said.

Jack’s father, Ryan Pomeroy, is a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve 934th Air Lift Wing based at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He returned from a four-and-a-half-month deployment to Kuwait just in time to participate in this year’s Dining in the Dark.

“I thought the event was a tremendous success,” said Willow River Principal Kimberly Osterhues.

Osterhues said a parent shared how attuned she became to the rest of her senses while eating with a blindfold on.

When asked if she was done eating, the woman didn’t know if she had anything left on her plate. She said she had to focus on whether she was still hungry.

The money raised at the event went to the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

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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