[Noozhawk note: One in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. This year's nomination period is now open.]
Adelaida Ortega takes volunteering seriously, teaching ceramics and speaking on behalf of guide dogs. In her spare time, she golfs and weaves baskets with beautiful, intricate designs.
Ortega has been blind for the last 29 years.
She got up one morning soon after her 45th birthday and saw double as she looked at her son. The doorway to her bedroom seemed bowed. With her sight quickly deteriorating, she consulted a local doctor, who could find nothing wrong. He sent her to the Stanford University Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with a rare eye disorder that affects one in a 1 million people.
Ortega fell into a deep depression that lasted nine months, changing her from a happy person to a crabby one. She refused to leave her house and resisted friends’ attempts to help her. “My life is over,” is all she would say.
A visit to a local paint store with her best friend, Rosa Hernandez, became a disaster when she stumbled into a stack of paint cans. Finally, Hernandez persuaded her to go out to lunch. They arrived at the "restaurant," but Ortega was perplexed when she could hear no clink of dishes or smell the aroma of food. She called out to Hernandez, but there was no response. Instead, a gentle voice told her she was at the Braille Institute and that Hernandez would be back at the end of the day. Ortega was furious and scared — she imagined a future limited to sharpening pencils.
The counselor introduced her to the other students. Along with the teachers, the students turned out to be the nicest people she had ever met. She felt an instant connection with them, appreciating the mix of ages and backgrounds.
Thanks to the Braille Institute’s training, Ortega went from feeling that her life was over to believing that her blindness was the best thing that ever happened to her. She says the Braille Institute saved her life. She learned how to organize her home, cook, shop and even to identify paper money. To help her function away from home, Ortega even participated in an overnight trip to Zaca Lake.
She enrolled in ceramics and basket-weaving classes taught by volunteers and discovered an innate aptitude. As her skill developed, her teacher suggested that she teach classes herself. Hesitant at first, she soon found she was good at it and found herself teaching three mornings a week.
Ortega had turned a corner and was ready to help others.
Basket-weaving came naturally and awakened life lessons passed to her by her Chumash father. He taught her to trust her senses and to listen to the wind and to the language of nature. Baskets were an essential part of Chumash life, used for the gathering, storing and preparing of food. They are still highly valued and serious, careful attention is paid to their creation. Ortega weaves only when she is on her own, quiet and centered. Her concentration results in incredibly beautiful baskets with designs that represent important parts of her life.
Although she did well with a cane, eventually Ortega signed up for a guide dog. Once a dog was assigned to her, she traveled to San Rafael in Marin County for several weeks of training. She has had several dogs, including her current companion, a golden retriever named Betty. Betty is her favorite, even though she is the worst as a guide dog!
Betty’s very good at guiding Ortega on the 45-minute walk to the Braille Institute in the mornings but prefers to take Ortega to a bus stop in the afternoon where she knows a Braille van will pick up the pair. In addition to slacking off after lunch, Betty is prone to shoplifting, grasping small toys or treats in her jaws and nonchalantly walking off.
Ortega speaks to local elementary and junior high schools to share her experiences with students. She also raises funds for the Lion’s Club Guide Dog Program and lends a hand to local puppy raisers who are preparing dogs for a life of helping the blind.
Open to any new experience, Ortega participates in golf tournaments and once traveled by invitation to St. Andrews’ famous course in Scotland.
Fulfilled and happy, Ortega occasionally fantasizes about regaining her sight. The rest of the time, she accepts that happiness is not something you can see — it is the sound of her best friend, Rose, in the kitchen; eager students creating ceramic treasures; a basket taking shape in her hands; and the snuffling of her naughty but loving Betty.
Ortega has turned her life experience into inspiration for others.
“You can’t keep taking and taking all the time,” she said. “Eventually you have to give something back.”
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Volunteers enrich all our lives.
Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next man or woman of the year! Just fill out a simple nomination form online by clicking here. Nominations are open until Aug. 26. The awards are sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and Noozhawk.
— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.