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‘She’s helped me with so much’: Finding friendship through CNIB vision volunteer program

Elsie Irvine is blind but can feel where her clothing is inside her closet by deciphering the large letters that label each colour. It’s a system her CNIB Vision Mate and friend, Hilary Graham, helped her come up with.
Elsie Irvine is blind but can feel where her clothing is inside her closet by deciphering the large letters that label each colour. It’s a system her CNIB Vision Mate and friend, Hilary Graham, helped her come up with. - Sara Ericsson
NEW MINAS, N.S. —

Paintings hang proudly on the walls of artist Elsie Irvine’s New Minas home.

Irvine, 92, felt devastated when her sight started fading seven years ago.

She has nearly fully lost sight in both her eyes and can no longer capture her horses and thatched-roof cottages on canvas. But she’s found hope since being paired with Hilary Graham, who is now Irvine’s second set of eyes and close friend.

“I live alone now, and there are some days that feel very long. I greatly look forward to seeing her when she comes – she’s helped me with so much,” says Irvine.

Hilary Graham says she and Elsie Irvine have become fast friends who chat, shop and garden together. “We just love doing these things. We talk politics, go out shopping, and come home to garden. It’s wonderful,” she says.
Hilary Graham says she and Elsie Irvine have become fast friends who chat, shop and garden together. “We just love doing these things. We talk politics, go out shopping, and come home to garden. It’s wonderful,” she says.

It’s a unique relationship that got its start when Irvine and Graham were paired through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s Vision Mate program, which pairs a CNIB client with vision loss with a volunteer for help with daily tasks, home organization and social activities.

CNIB program manager Jeff deViller says the program now counts 70 matches across Nova Scotia. Volunteers are interviewed, screened and trained at CNIB and then matched up with a person with vision loss and spend around two hours per week with them.

“They’re there to provide assistance and empower the person and allow them to do things they may not have been able to otherwise,” he says. “They’re not there to do things for the person – they are there to help them do them.”

Matching a client with their volunteer can be a tricky process. When deViller contacted Irvine to say a man was interested in being paired with her, she wondered whether this man would know how to help her with her clothes.

“I thought, ‘I wonder how he would be identifying clothing colours?’ So, I just said I’d wait until a lady comes along,” she laughs.

Graham has organized Irvine’s clothes by colour with strings attached to block letters Irvine can decipher – B for blue, P for purple, Pi for pink, and so on – to show which clothes are where.

Graham says coming up with such a system was important for Irvine, who knew she could no longer distinguish colours but wanted to put together her own outfits.

“I was describing something to Elsie as purple, but she wondered, ‘is it aubergine? Is it lilac?’ So trying to match without putting outfits together so Elsie can still choose and sort them herself,” says Graham.

But Graham is not the only helper in the friendship. The duo often set out on thrift shopping adventures together, when Irvine will offer her tips on which fabrics feel nicest.

Elsie Irvine was devastated after her vision loss diagnosis because she is a lifelong artist and loves capturing horses, thatched-roof cottages and nature scenes on her canvases. Her art is displayed prominently throughout her home.
Elsie Irvine was devastated after her vision loss diagnosis because she is a lifelong artist and loves capturing horses, thatched-roof cottages and nature scenes on her canvases. Her art is displayed prominently throughout her home.

She is also an avid gardener, and has given Graham tips and tricks on getting the most out of her green thumb. The two are working together to germinate seeds, and one Graham prepared under Irvine’s guidance has flowered sooner than expected.

The two also discuss politics, art and current affairs, and laugh when they say it’s lucky their views align and no arguments arise.

“The fact that Elsie is an artist, and I worked in theatre, means there’s so much we can talk about,” says Graham.

As of March 2019, CNIB was looking for two new volunteers in Kentville and Middleton. deViller says volunteers of different personalities and backgrounds who are friendly and professional are always sought out, as each client match is different.

The one constant is that they must not see the client as someone defined by their disability.

“This is not a position where you’re coming in and saving someone. The people we work with are often very independent and do things mostly on their own – just a bit differently,” says deViller.

Irvine says she can now navigate her kitchen, pantry, fridge and closet with relative ease, but still sometimes needs her second pair of eyes to help her through the odd dilemma.

And Graham gladly helps, though she doesn’t just go to help Irvine anymore.

She goes to spend an afternoon with her friend.

“It’s not a chore,” says Graham. “It’s something that you do that becomes a part of your life.”

Sara.Ericsson@kingscountynews.ca

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