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Dining in the Dark

The University Center Club Ballroom in Tallahassee after the lights came on. -SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright

David and JoAnna Neely prepare for the Lighthouse of the Big Bend’s Dining in the Dark event.
-SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright

By Jeffry Boatright

When Suwannee County native JoAnna Neely watches the morning sun rise in the east and eventually set in the west, she understands that such an experience cannot be enjoyed by everyone. Certainly her own visual challenges have given JoAnna an awareness of countless adversities faced by those with vision loss.

Quality vision is something that is too often taken for granted and because of the Lighthouse of the Big Bend, JoAnna had the opportunity to expose several of her friends and family members to what total blindness might be like, if only for a short while.

Over 20 people traveled from the Suwannee Valley area Sunday evening to experience the 12th Annual Paula Bailey Dining in the Dark, which was presented by the Lighthouse of the Big Bend. The affair seemed enjoyable enough with the advanced purchase of dinner tickets, opportunities to win raffles and a cheerful social hour overlooking Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium on a pleasant autumn evening.

At last, guests were lined up, table by table and led from the well-lit balcony into a dark corridor. Suddenly, things seemed less familiar and guests became dependent on people they couldn’t even see, much less know. Even the silhouette of one’s hand before them rapidly diminished, along with a sense of independence. Carefully guided by members of the Leon County Sheriff’s SWAT Team, who wore night vision glasses, guests were slowly directed to their respective tables.

Once seated, those in attendance began the meal by attempting to eat salad. Too often, an empty fork would reach the hungry mouth of a guest, with a leaf of lettuce escaping the unseen utensil, descending to the Ballroom floor. The real challenge was successfully passing needed items, such as salad dressing and bread, around the table.

Providing great service, the SWAT Team later served the main course, which could not be seen either. It did, however, have an appealing aroma and the taste was absolutely fantastic. Each bite taken was a surprise and each successful attempt at taking a bite was indeed a victory.

While random laughter and conversation eventually overtook the room, along with an occasional spilled glass or dropped utensil, simple questions began to emerge. Which way did we come in? How far away is the door? What time is it? Where did that voice come from?

The guests began to have a miniscule taste, although temporary, of what life must be like for one without the sense of sight. After approximately 90 minutes in total darkness, JoAnna Neely, the keynote speaker, was introduced. Acquainting the approximate 300 guests in attendance with the Lighthouse of the Big Bend, Joanna began to tell about the services the organization offers to individuals with vision loss in the Big Bend area.

Serving 11 counties, which include Hamilton, Madison and Suwannee, the Lighthouse of the Big Bend provides orientation and mobility, vocation rehabilitation, assistive technology, services for children and teens, iPhone training and support groups. Simply put, this phenomenal organization is guiding people through vision loss.

“The Lighthouse is just as its name implies,” Neely conveyed in her speech. “It is a beacon of hope shining out a ray of light to those of us who are experiencing vision loss.”

It is no secret that JoAnna, who was born with retinopathy of prematurity, is quite passionate about the organization. With her trademark smile and unsurpassed optimism, the talented singer and mother of two knows that even with a visual impairment, involvement and participation in mainstream society is achievable, especially with the support found through the Lighthouse of the Big Bend. JoAnna’s vision loss is surely a challenge, but she doesn’t allow it to be a stumbling block. Instead, she has utilized technology to create Excel spreadsheets and is successful in keeping up with family finances, preparing meals, and all the domestic chores that have historically been synonymous with being a mom.

“JoAnna takes care of the household,” her husband, David, explained. “She is a God send who is a great mom to our children. She is a wonderful wife and a super cook,” he added with a gentle smile. Discussing his wife and their mutually supportive marriage, David stated that words simply cannot describe how wonderful and inspirational JoAnna is to everyone she meets.

Capturing the hearts of the audience, JoAnna was able to articulate the significance of the Lighthouse of the Big Bend in her life and in the lives of others.

Perhaps the defining moment of the evening came shortly after the keynote address when the lights gently came on. Darkness was overtaken by light and the surroundings revealed that most had inaccurately conjured images of what the room might look like. The sobering moment, however, was when the thought occurred that the lights had made no difference for some in the room with permanent darkness remaining.

JoAnna was honored to be nominated for the 2016 Paula Bailey Inspirational Community Member Award, along with Donald Christie and Jennifer Connolly. She was equally excited when Christie was announced the winner. “I was so proud for him,” JoAnna exclaimed. “He has done so much and deserved to win,” she said of Christie, who is a computer programmer analyst with the Florida Public Service Commission.

Dining in the Dark was an experience that most guests will likely remember for years to come. With a new perspective of vision loss, some guests have surely seen the sun rise and set in a way they never did prior to attending such an eye-opening event.

Serving the area since 1983, the Lighthouse currently helps about 350 clients. It provides services to any person who is legally blind in the Big Bend area. For more information about the Lighthouse of the Big Bend, visit them on the web at

David and JoAnna Neely surrounded by friends and family before the dining in the dark event.
-SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright