A wise person — and probably most of our parents — once said, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” The age-old phrase has echoed down through the decades, leaving an indelible mark on our collective consciousness, reminding us that barriers were meant to be overcome. And no one takes this to heart more than Santa Barbara student and avid cook Dolly McKernan.

After years of teaching cake decorating and candy making out of her home, McKernan was dealt a swift and unexpected blow.

“I had already lost the sight in my left eye, but I didn’t even realize it until I went to the doctor,” she said, remembering that fateful visit. “I was diagnosed with an eye disease called ischemic optic neuropathy, and within three months, I’d lost the remaining vision in my right eye as well.”

Her doctor recommended the Braille Institute as a starting point on the road to recovery, but it wasn’t until she accidentally burned her arm on a pan while cooking that she actually considered it.

“I was a bit scared at first because I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But on my first day I was sitting in the lunch room and a group of students asked me to join them. It was a simple act of kindness and camaraderie, but it put me completely at ease. The rest is history.”

McKernan’s distinguished history includes a nearly 15-year tenure at the Santa Barbara Center, during which she’s gone from student to volunteer to teacher and taken almost every independent living skills class offered. She also learned how to use the white cane to get around safely, and has served as a volunteer on the Speaker’s Bureau and as a tour guide for new students.

She now teaches a cooking class at the center, and has even published her own cookbook titled Cooking Without Looking. The book features a collection of nearly 200 recipes — compiled with the help of her students and volunteers — ranging from appetizers and soups to main courses, and even a special section called “This and That.”

McKernan plans to donate several copies of the book to the Braille Institute’s Vistas store and hopes to share them with family, friends and anyone else who might need encouragement in the kitchen.

“When I first came to Braille Institute, I had packed away my pots and pans because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to cook again,” McKernan said. “But they taught me that all-important lesson that we learn as kids but sometimes forget as adults. You really can do anything you put your mind to.”

— Courtney Goines for the Braille Institute.