“Man’s best friend” takes on another meaning for Sharon Giovinazzo, President and CEO of World Services for the Blind in Little Rock. She and her guide dog, Watson, joined dozens of Lions from around the country for the 2017 Rose Bowl Parade as part of the Lions Club International 100th Anniversary float team.
The relationship between Lions and World Services for the Blind goes back to 1947, when Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind was founded with help from an Arkansas Lions Club. World Services for the Blind continues to be a service project for Lions, who support its mission of helping people who are blind or visually impaired to achieve sustainable independence.
You hear on TV about how much flora and fauna is used to cover the floats, Sharon says, “But until you experience that first-hand you don't really understand the scale of that. To know that every rose on every float has a vial of water attached to it, to experience the diversity of things used to decorate, from black beans to white pepper, from onion seeds to spices – it's amazing.”
Sharon lost her sight at the age of 31. Watching the parade had been a yearly tradition, but for the past 16 years she hasn’t watched because she knew it would make her feel sad.
“There were not many things that saddened me about losing my sight, but parades and fireworks were two of those things,” she says.
Sharon helped do some final decorating on the float before taking it to the streets of Pasadena for the Jan. 2 parade. “As I approached the float barn, anticipation built. I knew the sensory experience would be different for me than everyone else walking in. As I entered the door there was an overwhelming rush. I could immediately smell flowers, coffee, cinnamon, oranges, onions and more.”
Watson guided Sharon down the 5.5-mile parade route alongside the float, waving to spectators and mingling with the crowd.
With more than a million people lining the parade route, three times people shouted out “'Thank you, Lions, you bought my first pair of glasses,'” Sharon says. “That is why we are Lions. And for those of you who don't know my story, it was Lions who bought my first pair of glasses. To have the honor of leading World Services for the Blind, one of the Lions' proud service projects, I feel as if my life has come around full circle.”
Beyond the wonderful experiences, being part of the parade was also a learning experience, Sharon notes. “One that makes me reflect on the fact that our clients we serve have been told their whole life what is not possible because they are blind. I realized that I had also trapped myself in that way of thinking in some ways by assuming it would make me sad not to be able to see the parade – I robbed myself, and that is something I refuse to do to our clients.”
With every step, Sharon showed an estimated 120+ million viewers worldwide that blindness hasn’t sidelined her. Instead, it has given her a vision that has allowed her to lead World Serves for the Blind into a new era.
“As the leader of World Services for the Blind, I bring back a renewed commitment to not only provide the best training, but also to give experiences to our students,” Sharon says. “Many of our students have lived a life in isolation and part of them entering the new chapter of their journey is to learn that anything is possible.”