Living Visually Impaired: Kelly’s Story

Kelly Zarkewicz is the HR Manager for ePromos. Learn more about her visual impairment and daily life with her guide dog, Robin, as we honor National Guide Dog Month, this September.

Every morning, Kelly starts her workday by walking three blocks to pick up a venti iced quad with a splash of soy milk at the Starbucks® near her home in Queens, New York. She makes the journey with her guide dog, Robin, whose “puppuccino” – a small cup of whipped cream – will also be waiting for her at the counter.

Kelly and Robin recently celebrated a year of companionship, and Kelly is quick to say that by now, she trusts Robin as much as she trusts her husband, Andrew, when it comes to helping her navigate her day-to-day life.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Kelly was resistant at first to the idea of using a guide dog.

The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind

A few years ago, Kelly explains, she began the process. She completed her application and went away to attend a weeks-long training at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, but she found the process isolating and overwhelming. After a few days, she called Andrew to come pick her up. “I wasn’t ready emotionally,” she said, “to give the rest of my sight away to a dog.”

By then, Kelly was a “tried and true” pro at minimizing the impact of her visual impairment. She first began to lose her sight at age 18, after three years fighting through a serious virus, two liver transplants, Leukemia, and intense treatment to help her get cancer-free. Chemotherapy and radiation left her with optic nerve atrophy. Around the time she was finishing high school, she was diagnosed as legally blind and visually impaired.

“I was very eager to go to college and put this medical chapter behind me,” Kelly says. “I hid my impairment as much as I could from almost everyone. I hid it for 20 years, actually.” Kelly has no vision in her right eye, and in her left eye, she has very little depth perception, no peripheral vision, and colors appear distorted to her. “Of all the medical treatments and diagnoses,” she explains, “losing my sight was the hardest. Emotionally, that’s what really hit me the most. I have to constantly adjust how I do things, and I’m always relearning.”

Coming Out

By 2011, when she first took a job with ePromos, she’d become so adept at compensating for her impairment that no one she worked with knew she was visually impaired. She made adaptations to her computer to continue performing her job expertly, and she spent a lot of time studying common surroundings to make sure things such as her routes around the office building were familiar. But a couple of years later, when ePromos moved their headquarters to downtown New York City on Wall Street, everything changed.

“The walls and doors of the downtown office were made of glass, and everything inside the building lobby was made from the same white marble material,” she recounts. The effect was that the walls, floor, and furniture (like the reception desk) all collapsed into each other. “Everything looked flat to me, like a giant blanket,” Kelly explains. “It was a nightmare.” It was immediately apparent to her coworkers that something was wrong, and as a result, she says, “I had to kind of come out to the entire office about what was happening.”

Her colleagues were eager to help. In particular, Kelly credits her boss and ePromos CFO, Ken Domnitz, as well as Freddy Eira, ePromos Director of Accounting, with jumping in to offer assistance whenever she needed it.

At first, Kelly continued commuting downtown, but the physical shift from a more organized Midtown office to the frenetic downtown area proved to be too much. “I started using a white cane for the first time ever,” Kelly shares, “and I hated it. I’d use it to walk to and from work and then I’d fold it up and hide it in my bag.” As her impairment worsened, Kelly explains, “I started using the cane more and more because it was so exhausting to be scanning all the time.” The vulnerability she felt while using the cane was what made her rethink the idea of getting a guide dog.
It would take another year, until 2018, before Kelly felt truly ready to bring a guide dog into her life. By then she’d made the switch to working from home, where she’s able to work full-time with a few additional accommodations and adaptive technologies.

The Next Step

“I trained like Rocky to go back to the guide dog facility,” she shares. “I didn’t want to leave again – I really wanted this time to be successful.” The process for acquiring a guide dog is lengthy and complex. Kelly submitted a detailed application in November (including paperwork, several interviews, and a video) before getting word of her approval in June to return to the foundation for a two-week training program in Smithtown, New York.

“I specifically asked for a yellow lab, because it was really important for me to be able to see the dog’s face,” she says. The contrast of Robin’s dark eyes and nose against her yellow fur makes her features more recognizable to Kelly given the specifics of her impairment. After arriving at the foundation for training, Kelly was paired with Robin.Kelly and Robin

The time and funding that goes into training guide dogs is impressive. It costs over $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and place a single guide dog, and dogs often spend a year or more training to work with someone with a visual impairment. Fortunately, the foundation’s services are provided at no charge to the individual. Funding comes entirely from the generosity of donors.
“Trainers put so much time and effort into these dogs, and it’s such a big deal when they successfully make it through the program and are partnered with a visually impaired person,” Kelly explains. When Robin successfully graduated from the program and was ready to go home with Kelly, her puppy raiser, Jessica, flew up from Georgia for the event.

Life With Robin

“Kelly and Andrew are beyond the perfect family for Robin, and I can already tell how loved and spoiled she is since getting matched with Kelly,” Jessica shared. “I love hearing the stories and experiences since they started working together and hearing how much their lives have changed since accepting Robin into it. I can’t thank this program enough for introducing me to such wonderful people and showing me that when action meets compassion, lives change.”

Robin and her PuppachinoNow, as Kelly performs her daily activities, Robin is there offering guidance and support. In addition to walking with Kelly to Starbucks, she can navigate to the post office, bank, Kelly’s favorite clothing stores, and even lead Kelly to an empty seat on the subway. She’s smart and well-mannered, and her guidance frees up Kelly to give more time, focus, and energy to other things that are interesting and important to her, such as her job at ePromos.

“As an HR manager, you have a lot of people that come to you with health issues or other needs for accommodation, and my background has really made me someone who is empathetic of anyone’s situation or circumstance,” Kelly shares. “I always wanted to be judged on my merit rather than on my impairment, and this perspective gives me the ability to go the extra mile for people because I have a special place in my heart for anyone who’s going through something. Everyone has a story.”

This piece is such a testament to our culture at ePromos, and we’re so thrilled to be able to share it with you. To keep up to date on all things ePromos, follow us on Facebook, Instagram,Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest!

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