Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's all about giving back

Valued volunteer inspires at CNIB

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JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  
Robb Hempel, seen with his cat Phoebe, volunteers in the CNIB store, where he deals with customers four days a week.

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JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Robb Hempel, seen with his cat Phoebe, volunteers in the CNIB store, where he deals with customers four days a week. Photo Store

Robb Hempel is a true testament to strength and courage in the face of adversity -- using all he has learned throughout his journey to help others. He is a determined man, someone you would guess has never backed down from a challenge without a fight.

When Hempel was diagnosed in 2008 with diabetic retinopathy and began to experience vision loss, he underwent 17 surgeries in one year. When his sight went from being able to discern shapes and shadows to total darkness in 2009, he was determined to not let it stop him from doing things he loves.

"I didn't grieve that much, I took this on as a challenge. You see, I'm a very driven person, always have been," says Hempel. "I said, now what do I have to do? I push really hard for myself."

The 37-year-old former diesel mechanic says he was first introduced to the CNIB when an occupational therapist at The Misericordia Health Centre suggested he check out some of its resources and services. He recounts when he first visited, an instructor had him walk down a 21-metre hallway. At this point of time he could still make out shadows in light.

"I kept bouncing off the walls like a drunken sailor," laughs Hempel. "She asked me if I wanted a cane. I said no, why? That was the first day of my new normal."

But Hempel is definitely a force to be reckoned with and he credits CNIB with helping him learn everything from cooking, navigating the city, typing on a keyboard and learning to read braille. (Hempel also met the love of his life, his girlfriend of four years, at CNIB).

Within six months of going blind, Hempel was on his own taking the bus to appointments and running errands. "A lot of times I'm giving people on the bus instructions on how to get places," beams Hempel, who is a huge advocate when it comes to bringing about awareness about vision loss to the general public in order to combat stigma.

Hempel has become an incredible volunteer for CNIB. Staff there say he is a beloved "permanent fixture" at their 1080 Portage Ave. office, whose notable positive attitude toward his work and flexibility when it comes to doing different tasks, have gained him great praise.

Hempel does everything, from providing coverage and support at reception to administration support in all areas of their operations.

Since January he has been volunteering four days a week, from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm, at the CNIB store, which sells products for people who have experienced vision loss, from magnifiers to talking watches. He assists customers from entry to exit of the store, helping them find products, talking about CNIB's services and resources and completing transactions. This entire month, Hempel has been managing the store on his own, and says retail is definitely his new career path.

"I'm the first person in Canada who works the backside of the desk," beams Hempel, explaining that usually at stores, a sighted person looks after the transactions.

Hempel says volunteering, for him, means giving back to an organization that was there for him when he needed it most. "It means a lot to me everything that CNIB has done for me," he says.

"Whether it was helping me get through grieving things, or learning how to do things like cook a great steak, volunteering helps me give back to them." Hempel also does presentations for United Way events about his experience with CNIB.

"CNIB is fortunate to have so many dedicated and supportive volunteers," says Debby Cuninghame, its manager of operations.

"Blind or partially sighted volunteers are tremendous ambassadors for CNIB. These volunteers positively demonstrate how CNIB rehabilitation services promote independence and build the skills and confidence so our clients can lead the lives they want," Cuninghame says.

Hempel says it also means a lot to him when he is able to talk to customers who have just been diagnosed with vision loss and talk them through things.

"It's about getting to a point where you have more good days than bad," Hempel smiles, his positive lens on life and refreshing honesty making him a truly inspiring Winnipegger.

CNIB is looking for volunteers for their Vision Mate program. Vision Mate volunteers provide assistance to clients one on one in their home with tasks such as reading mail and grocery shopping. For more information, contact Candace Gower, co-ordinator of volunteer services at CNIB, at 204-789-0955.

If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at carolynshimmin@gmail.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2013 B2

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