The Enquirer and United Way of Greater Cincinnati have joined forces for the 35th year to help families in need with the Wish List program. This is the second of eight stories that will run this month.
Erica Brenner has always been a helper. Now she’s the one who needs some help.
For 22 years, the 59-year-old Colerain Township resident was a home instructor for Northwest Local Schools. She also tutored privately. She taught students with behavior issues and with multiple disabilities. She taught students who were pregnant and who were battling disease. She loved the families she met. And the work. “It becomes what you live for. It becomes who you are,” she says.
But health issues – she has many, including autoimmune disease, diabetes, heart ailments, an enlarged thyroid – have taken their toll. She last worked in August 2017, when she had surgery for a serious infection. While in the hospital, she looked in a mirror and had trouble seeing her face. She was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to blindness.
She now receives monthly injections in her eyes, which have improved her distance vision. But she still struggles with reading. And reading is important to her because it’s how she continues to be a helper.
Erica uses a computer at her local library to do online grocery shopping for a 90-year-old friend. She also logs on to a library computer to do volunteer public relations work for a New York-based philanthropic group. She wears reading glasses, but “after a while, focusing becomes very difficult.”
When grocery shopping for herself, she reads labels using a hand-held magnifier provided by the Cincinnati Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired (CABVI). She’s thankful for the support she’s received from the organization, which also supplied her with a larger magnifier she uses at home.
“It’s really hard to accept help when you want to give it,” Erica says. “It’s been a humbling experience for me.”
She is humbled, too, each time she visits a food pantry. That’s now part of her routine because her Social Security disability checks don’t go very far. She has tried to supplement her income with a home-based business selling food-storage containers, but she says it has not been very successful.
“It’s a new normal for me,” she says. “I’m not used to not working.” But she can continue helping.
Erica’s wish – recommended by CABVI – is for a laptop computer with large-print keyboard labels and Wi-Fi. Then she would no longer have to go to the library to help her friend shop online for groceries, or to do her volunteer work. Indeed, she hopes to expand her volunteer efforts by connecting with a wildlife rescue organization.
What’s more, a laptop would give her easy access to online support groups. She could connect with other people who are adapting to vision loss.
“In support groups, everyone lifts everyone up,” says CABVI’s Patsy Baughn.
Erica likes the sound of that. “I could help a lot more people,” she says.
As she considers the difference a laptop would make in her life, her voice lowers to a whisper. “It would be an amazing gift, because I know there are a lot of people who are worse off than me.”
ERICA’S WISH: A laptop computer with large-print keyboard labels and Wi-Fi.
ESTIMATED COST: $1,000
HOW TO HELP
If you can help in any way, please send checks directly to the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Attn: Wishlist, P.O. Box 632711, Cincinnati, OH 45263-2711. Donations can be made online at www.uwgc.org/wishlist.
John Johnston is the content writer at United Way and a former Enquirer reporter.