Anna Kristjanson knew something was wrong with her vision, but she didn't know how to explain the changes she was experiencing.
After nearly being hit by a car, Anna knew she needed immediate support and reached out to Vision Loss Rehabilitation Ontario (VLRO).
"I got my white cane in the spring of 2018. Immediately, I asked my orientation and mobility instructor about support groups," says Anna. "I knew I wasn't alone, but I didn't really know anyone with sight loss."
For people who have lost their sight, connecting with others who have experienced the same thing can make a world of difference toward rebuilding confidence, independence and a sense of hope. Peer support reduces the incidence of depression and isolation associated with sight loss while helping people gain self-confidence and improve the quality of their lives.
In July 2018, Anna was officially diagnosed with a condition called Usher Syndrome, which affects both hearing and vision. Shortly after her diagnosis, she received a call from the CNIB Foundation informing her that a new peer support group was being offered.
"I was eager to join and get some support to better understand how to adjust to my new reality," says Anna.
A three-year $424,000 grant given by the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) in 2017 has supported the expansion of peer support and Vision Mate programs in the Greater Toronto Area.
"This investment by the Ontario Trillium Foundation has allowed us to grow programs to reduce isolation for people with sight loss in the GTA," says Suzanne Decary-van den Broek, Executive Director, CNIB Foundation Ontario South (GTA). "This initiative is helping participants who have recently lost their sight develop strong connections. Together, we're building inclusive and engaged communities."
With this grant, CNIB hired Nat Miller, a Registered Nurse and Certified Community Outreach Specialist, with lived experience. Nat has glaucoma and volunteered with CNIB for nine years.
"It's important that people adjusting to sight loss get out of the house and get the resources and support that they need. Peer Support groups connect them with a community of people that understand what they are experiencing," says Nat.
These accessible and inclusive support programs enable people with sight loss to develop relationships and acquire the confidence to engage with their communities.
"It was great to meet other people with sight loss. All of us have very different experiences, different backgrounds and different eye conditions, but we are here for the same reason," says Anna. "We have sight loss – it's part of our lives – but, it doesn't define us."
Anna says she enjoyed attending the groups because Nat always had a way of making the group feel comfortable and uplifted.
"I felt like I had a purpose – a reason to go," says Anna. "It was informative, collaborative, and I've developed some friendships."
The OTF funding has also helped CNIB build and expand a telephone network of peer support volunteers.
"After someone has finished the peer support program, they can volunteer and help mentor someone else, who has been newly diagnosed with sight loss," says Nat. "They have the tools, training and lived experience to offer additional support."
Anna participated in a training session with the intention of volunteering, but she landed a job with the CNIB Foundation. Now, she's working as a Program Data Analyst & Participant Engagement Coordinator.
"Anna is a shining example of the strength and importance of these groups. After her diagnosis, she connected and engaged with the community – and a job came out of it," says Nat.
To date, new program offerings have attracted more than 100 new participants in the Toronto region, and Nat intends to grow the program as much as possible.
"Sight loss is life-changing, but it's not a life sentence," says Nat. "No one should feel like they're alone throughout their journey."
The Ontario Trillium Foundation is an agency of the Government of Ontario, and one of Canada’s leading granting foundations. OTF awarded $108 million to 629 projects last year to build healthy and vibrant communities in Ontario.