It was 2000 and Virginia Jacko’s eyesight was getting worse. As the financial executive supporting the president and provost of Purdue University, it was increasingly more difficult to do her job. Soon Jacko knew the cause – retinitis pigmentosa — and she knew eventually she’d be blind. She needed help.
“I knew I had to get busy,” Jacko said. “I said to myself, ‘You got to be the best blind person you can be.’ And I learned about Miami Lighthouse.”
Miami Lighthouse for the Blind was the first agency in the United States to rehabilitate adults for mainstream competitive employment. In January of 2001 Jacko took a three-month medical leave from Purdue and moved to Miami to learn the skills she needed to live independently once her eyesight was completely gone. She learned to do her makeup and her hair, how to cook, and how to use a computer when you can’t point and click.
Twenty years later, Jacko’s still there, now as the president and chief executive officer.
“I think sadness comes in when you don’t have purpose,” said Jacko. “I began as a volunteer for five months. I fell in love with this mission and decided, ‘I’m not going back to do all of that financial stuff. I want to help the blind. I’m staying in Miami.’”
After finishishing her training, the former financial executive was invited to join the Lighthouse board as the treasurer.
“I called my daughter and said, “If I had my eyesight, I’d be the best treasurer,” said Jacko. “That’s my expertise, but I’m totally blind.”
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, you better believe in yourself. If somebody else believes in you, why aren’t you believing in yourself?’ And so, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Then in 2005, the Lighthouse’s CEO abruptly resigned. Jacko was asked to serve as a pro bono CEO while the board conducted a national search. Days turned into weeks, and soon it had been four months. During that time Jacko wasn’t just occupying the CEO’s office, she was creating new grant proposals and engaging new donors that were attracted to their mission. Soon it was crystal clear – the search was over.
“When the board asked me to put my name in, I became the first totally blind president and CEO of this organization,” Jacko said. “I’m so glad I volunteered because they could realize that with the training I received, I could be a very successful CEO. Indeed, that’s what I am.”
It’s success that her mother envisioned years ago when Jacko called to share her frightening diagnosis.
“I said, ‘Mom, I just got my diagnosis. I’m probably going to go totally blind.’
And my mother said, ‘Well, I’m going to pray you do big things for the blind.’”
Big things, indeed. The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind’s work now impacts 90,000 lives each year, from babies and children to adults and seniors, as well as their families. Programs include free prescription glasses for children, pre-employment services, distance learning and technology services.
Jacko created an online store that offers low-cost assistive technology devices and works to close the digital divide for seniors by aggressively advocating for low-vision accessible websites on computers and smart phones.
Jacko has a passionate and powerful partner in the Florida Blue Foundation which awards grants to fund innovative ideas, programs and best practice models to help underserved, multicultural populations across Florida. “Thanks to the Florida Blue Foundation, we’re able to offer low vision programs to seniors (55+) in vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods in Miami.
Even though she is now totally blind, Jacko says her vision is better than ever. She has a mission she believes in and firsthand knowledge of its importance. “What is vision? It’s ideas. It’s based upon one’s experience, based upon one’s networking, based upon one’s goal. I have vision. I just have it a little differently than others.”
When faced with a devastating diagnosis, Jacko made the decision to lean in. She decided to start growing bolder and she’s not done yet. This year, at the age of 80, she signed a new five-year contract to continue leading The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. Her mother’s prayers have been answered. Virginia Jacko is the blind visionary.