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Student Profile: Marie Vuong

On Monday mornings, adults gather at the LightHouse for The Business of Blindness: Coffee With Mike Cole. Mike, who is blind himself and retired after a long career in the field of blindness, chats with attendees over different issues related to blindness from daily living, to dealing with getting benefits to blindness philosophy.

One of the regular attendees of Mike’s class is Marie Vuong, who has been coming to the adult daytime programs at the LightHouse since 2011. In 2009, Marie’s optometrist noticed something unusual in her left eye and urged Marie to see an ophthalmologist. Marie found out that her retina had detached. She soon developed cataracts on both eyes.

With her vision changing, Marie decided to research various senior centers, most of which offered medical services and support groups for seniors with changing vision. But Marie was looking for something different: She was drawn to the LightHouse because of its recreational activities. “I came to the LightHouse because I wanted to learn things,” she said firmly.

Serena Olson, Adult Program Coordinator at Lighthouse, explains that when people first come to the LightHouse for services, some are ready to jump right in to intensive one-on-one training offered by Rehabilitation Services or Accessible Technology. Others are looking for social interaction, to form relationships with other blind adults. Serena works hard to ensure that social recreational programs “put learning and growth in the context of something fun.”

One of the programs is Stronger Seniors, an exercise class that is taught by LightHouse Health and Wellness Program Coordinator Amber Sherrard. Amber leads a class that leaves her students energized no matter their fitness level. Says Marie of the class, “A lot of good things come from Amber’s class. The exercise is very helpful.”  

Marie’s participation in LightHouse classes motivated her to become a more involved community member. She is a regular at LightHouse’s Thursday knitting class. She and other students have knitted beanies and blankets for premature babies at Kaiser Permanente. Marie enjoyed her visits to Kaiser to drop off the beanies and blankets so much that she was motivated to volunteer at Kaiser’s information desk. Marie feels fortunate that the city she once dreamed about visiting is now her home, though her path to San Francisco was not easy. 

Marie grew up in what was formerly South Vietnam. She was working in Saigon when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. After several years, she made the decision to leave the country as tensions in the region remained high after the war. 

Marie and her four year-old son tried to leave Vietnam three times. In September 1981, they were finally successful in walking hundreds of miles across Vietnam, staying in a series of safe houses along the way. They boarded a riverboat not meant for the open seas. With only a few pounds of rice for the 28 people onboard and mostly rain water to drink, they made the perilous journey to a Malaysian island. On the way they encountered pirates who took personal possessions from the passengers including money they had hidden in their clothing. When Marie and her son finally reached a refugee camp, she had a medical examination and found out she was pregnant. 

After five and a half months, a Canadian immigration official was able to get her in touch with her brother who was already in America, and Marie and her family were able to emigrate soon after.  

Marie’s vision has changed over the last nine years, but she puts it in perspective when she reflects on fleeing Vietnam. “I’m happy with what I have done,” she says.  “When I have to face a problem, I always look back at leaving my home in Vietnam behind and coming to the United States. If I can do that, with my eyes, why do I have to worry?”

 For more information on the weekly schedule of LightHouse programs, check out the online calendar, call the Events Hotline at 415-694-7325, or pick up a Braille or large print schedule in the LightHouse reception area.