Kirstyn “Kiki” Smith is a founder of the Rochester Area Blind Athletes, a non-profit organization based in the Greater Rochester region.
The nonprofit, Smith said, is a mental and physical health vehicle for people with vision loss. The organization also provides skills building and education as a corollary.
“Growing up as a legally blind youth, my position was always on the bench. Beep Baseball got me off the pine tree and onto the field, on equal terms with my blind competitors and teammates,” said Smith.
Smith is also a member of Rochester’s Beep Baseball team, the Rochester Area Pioneers, which was founded in 2015, when the Beep Baseball World Series was held locally. Teams from around the world gathered in Rochester for the event.
“Other members of the blind community and I made our first team, we came in last. We had so much fun though. We created a network and have been doing it ever since,” Smith mused.
The National Beep Baseball Association was founded in 1976 in Chicago, according to its website. The sport is a modified version of baseball where the ball makes a beeping sound, the bases make a buzzing sound, and the players—no matter how much vision they have left—wear a blindfold to level the playing field.
People with vision loss rely on face-to-face interaction to meet and learn from other blind people—for those left without them to navigate their world without perspective.
Over the past two years, indoor gatherings have been restricted to varying degrees, but outdoor sports — a social lifeline for the blind community — have held out.
Baseball as a lifeline
Smith was born seeing. At the age of eight, she was diagnosed with uveitis, a degenerative autoimmune disease.
Progression was steady and over the years Smith eventually lost total light detection.
“I refused to admit that I was blind for most of my life until I found Beep Baseball,” she said.
After the team’s debut and first loss in the 2015 Beep Baseball World Series in Rochester, Smith kept the group organized to keep trying.
“To make sure the Pioneers are part of the World Series every year, we’re finding a way to take 15-20 visually impaired team members on the road,” she said.
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Smith and members of the team created the Rochester Area Blind Athletes, a 501(c)3, to raise money for the trips.
“The money we raise will support the airfare, transportation and hotel of the players during the World Series. We also organize activities such as bowling, belly dance lessons or trampoline/skydome rentals,” she said.
Finding other blind people is a challenge, Smith said. She likens it to a sighted person identified by their alma mater’s sweatshirt.
“We can’t do that. It’s hard to find others who struggle with their vision. It’s about having a group of people who live by it every day,” she said. “How do you know if you’re running out of eggs? We learn those things from each other.”
“Recreational activities like these for people who are legally blind and/or visually impaired strengthen communities, encourage friendship, physical fitness, team building and overall success in life,” said Julie Hovey OCFS Associate Commissioner for the Commission for the Blind of New York State.
Building a community
Lea Werner, from Rochester, started running at age 50. She prefers long-distance running and loves 5K marathons.
Werner, who is completely blind, cross-trains almost every day at the gym. Exercising, Werner said, is a huge stress reliever.
“I’ve always been in good shape through athletics. But I never played a blind sport until I was introduced to Beep Baseball.”
Also, a member of the Rochester Pioneers, Werner said she knew there were blind people in Rochester, but she didn’t know where they were until she started playing the game.
Werner, is one of the team’s fundraisers. She said the stores and businesses she visits are the biggest contributors to the team.
“I tend to go to places in my own neighborhood, I support the stores in my neighborhood. They know me, they help me,” Werner said.
Werner advises others who are blind and may feel isolated to learn the companies closest to them.
“Go to familiar places, and when they get to know you. They help because they know you keep coming back,” she said.
Share common experiences
Helen Jones, from Brighton, is a middle-distance runner and sprinter. During her athletic career, Jones took part in several world championships and the Paralympics, a competition for people with different disabilities.
Originally from Kenya, Jones was born seeing. When she was a teenager, she developed retinitis pigmentosa.
Jones is now completely blind.
“You lose your night vision first and slowly I lost my daytime vision, nobody knew a blind person in Kenya. I was afraid to tell my parents when it happened. It was a difficult journey,” she said.
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Now her primary role is being a mother to her superstar son, Elisha. The sports world for Jones was her first love. “When I went to school for the blind in Kenya, I was the first woman to compete in the Paralympics for them. Running was so important to me.”
As a member of the Pioneers, Jones maintains her athletic skills.
Athletics for the blind community is essential, she said.
“You have something in common that you can talk about. Getting together, for us to play ball and run around, not only helps with sports, we share technology ideas and cooking tips.”
Before Beep baseball, Jones knew of no other blind people in Rochester. “And then I met one person after another. My team – they supported me in my journey as a new suddenly single-blind parent.”
Be part of a team
The Rochester Pioneers don’t compete alone. Sighted volunteers are an important part of their success.
Maria Fisher of Penfield has been a volunteer with the Rochester Pioneers for nearly five years. She helps drive people to games and practices, social media marketing, volunteer and player recruitment, and fundraising for the Rochester Blind Athletes.
“If you’re blind and went to school through an inclusion model, you probably haven’t played any sport. For many of our players, this is the first time they’ve ever played for a team sport. It’s exciting,” Visser said.
“There’s camaraderie and there are challenges, learning to play in a team with a coach,” she said.
Fisher said the team is just a good reminder that being blind is only one thing. “They have whole lives, they have careers, they raise families,” she said.
About the reason for her love for the sport, Fisher said: “These are my friends. I just like playing on a team. I was never an athlete, but now I’m wanted and I feel useful.”
if you would like to donate to support the team, please send a check or money order to the RABA, PO Box 826, Webster, checks payable to the Rochester Area Blind Athletes.