MANATEE -- About three years ago, Judy Hale, who had just volunteered to become the new evangelism coordinator at Hope Lutheran Church, 4635 26th St. W., Bradenton, decided she wanted to create fellowship dinners for the visually impaired as a church outreach project.
She had been captivated by Lisa Watts, a local woman who is visually impaired and often speaks at churches about life without sight.
During one such speech, Watts happened to choose Hale as a volunteer and Hale got to see what it was like to shut her eyes and feel the back of a chair and the texture of carpet versus tile.
"I was amazed at what the visually impaired can do," Hale said. "I said to myself, 'This is the direction I want to go.'"
Hale had dreams of hundreds of visually impaired patrons assembling at the church, not only laughing and having a good time but making sighted people in the church feel more comfortable around them.
There are roughly 800 visually impaired people in Manatee County and, in 2009, no church was offering such get-togethers.
But everywhere Hale went to recruit the visually impaired to attend her first dinner, she got nowhere.
"I learned that the visually impaired have their own connections and don't like going outside the box much," Hale said. "I was offering something outside of their box."
In fact, one prominent organization for the blind in the area flatly turned her down when she asked if they could notify their clients of her proposed dinners.
"They told me they don't release names and won't tell them," Hale
said. "I presume they thought I was after something. All I was trying to do was give."
After months of trying, Hale went home one day and threw her outline for her fellowship dinners for the blind on the ground.
Hale's husband, Bill, said, 'You can't give up. Keep trying.'"
Hale decided to speak about her project at every Hope Lutheran meeting she could.
Someone, she hoped, would hear her.
One Sunday she wassitting in church and the line "If you build it, they will come" came into her head from the movie "Field of Dreams."
"I went to the church office the next morning and putup an announcement that October 16, 2009 would be our first dinner, even though I had no one to come," Hale said.
Hale didn't realize it, but just that week, Janet Gatti of Trailer Estates, who is now 92, heard her speak at a church meeting.
"I thought, 'This woman is trying so hard. I will see what I can do to help her,'" Gatti said.
Gatti asked fellow Trailer Estates resident Dorothy Naugle, who is visually impaired and has a service dog, to come. Gatti also recruited Margaret Chambers from Trailer Estates.
Naugle and Chambers were the only diners at the first dinner.
But, like many stories of faith, the battle wasn't yet won.
Naugle told Gatti after the first dinner that she was embarrassed by all the attention bestowed upon her by the church volunteers.
"The visually impaired don't want to feel inferior," Gatti said.
But Gatti, instead of keeping silent about Naugle's feelings, informed Hale, who then instructed her volunteers to ask before rendering assistance.
Naugle returned to the dinners many times and noted that the volunteers eventually became expert at working with the blind.
"It means so much to us that we have not been forgotten," Naugle said this week. "Sighted people don't know what to say to us or what to do. I know that was one of Judy's goals with the dinners."
Now, after three years of success, Hope Lutheran's Blind Fellowship Dinners are the highest-attended such events in Florida with attendance consistently hitting more than 20, according to a national blind ministry organization.
The core of volunteers are Nola Kruske, Meta Green, Gloria Muench, Jean Patchske, Rosemary Rawley, Bill Hale and Judy Hale.
Third Friday every month
The fellowship dinners for the visually impaired occur at 6:30 p.m. the third Friday of every month at the church and are open to the public, Hale said.
"It's overwhelming to see them laughing and talking," Hale said this week. "When I can take a break and look at the crowd, it makes you want to cry. I'm very thankful that my husband pushed me to keep going."
The patrons love seeing each other and chatting, Hale said. "They talk about common concerns," Hale added.
Hale advertises the dinners as "not church services. And they hold me to it," Hale added.
The visually impaired who attend are not just Lutheran, but represent most Christian denominations.
"I am not sure if we have Jewish and I don't think we have a Muslim member, but we did have an atheist," Hale said.
The visually impaired enjoy three prize drawings during the evening. They dine on beef stroganoff and other delectable items, all donated by Hope Lutheran church members when Hale passes the basket.
"This woman is so unusual," Gatti said of Hale. "You should see her out there putting up balloons. She's so dedicated. She's an inspiration."