This issue: Summer 2017

Casting a Vision

How a ‘change project’ inspired MacKensie Keiner to use her experience with blindness to help others

By Melissa Binder

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, 11 second-year Master of Social Work students watched professor Muh Bi Lin pace excitedly before them. “Welcome,” he said. He informed them this was no ordinary class. Instead, it was a conceptual organization: SELDI – Social Entrepreneur and Leadership Development Institute – a place where they would confront injustice locally and internationally through semester-long ventures called “change projects.” He would be there to support them. The details were in the syllabus.

There was just one problem: MacKensie Keiner couldn’t read the syllabus.

She could see Lin – to her, a blurry, pacing column – but not make out the details of his eyes or mouth while he talked. She only knew what he looked like because she’d known him before she went blind.

A year earlier, Keiner had been fine. She had poor eyesight – astigmatism, she was told – but it didn’t concern her. At that point she still thought her biggest challenge was balancing school with life as a single parent. But that Tuesday in Lin’s class, the start of her final semester, Keiner faced a new reality: a rapid loss of vision brought on by a combination of achromatopsia, ischemic optic neuropathy and retinopathy.

She couldn’t read her textbooks, couldn’t see PowerPoint presentations. She couldn’t recognize the faces of peers as they passed in the hallway. At home, she couldn’t tell which bottle was shampoo and which one was conditioner. She couldn’t read the thermometer when her son’s head felt warm or help him with his homework.

As her peers in Lin’s class scrambled to organize passion projects that would cap their master’s experience – raising money for a well in Rwanda, recruiting foster parents in Vancouver – Keiner struggled to find her niche. Change projects aren’t supposed to be just any task to improve a community. Lin intends the projects to help students hone their calling.

“The challenge to them is: What is your prophetic imagination?” he says. “This is not only a process of getting educated. This is about finding who you are.”

And that was the problem. Keiner’s identity was in wild flux.

She’d been through a monumental shift before. Years ago, before her son was born, she’d planned to go to medical school. But when a child came into the picture unexpectedly she let go of her dream of becoming a doctor and embraced being a single mom. Eventually she came to see social work as her new future, considering it a way to still provide healing – just a different kind. She imagined opening a private practice to work with families and individuals one-on-one.

As her sight faded, so did yet another vision for her life. But Keiner was determined.

“I wasn’t going to quit,” she says. “I’ve worked really hard to come to where I am. I’ve lived on my own since I was 15; I got emancipated and I supported myself. I finished school on my own. I worked hard to get into this program, and I didn’t want this to be another barrier. I want this.”

But succeeding has been even harder than Keiner imagined. While resources exist for people with visual impairment, they can be tough to find without the direction of well-informed supporters. Most of the people around Keiner – fellow students, administrators – just didn’t quite know how to help.

And that’s when she finally found a focus for her change project.

While her peers set out to change the lives of people who are in poverty, homeless or parentless, Keiner sought to make an impact on the lives of her own peers and teachers – and subsequently all the visually impaired people they’ll interact with in the future. She made goggles that simulate her visual experience, gave a detailed presentation on eye anatomy and visual diseases, and rounded up a list of resources she wants the school and its future social-workers-in-training to be aware of.

As she spent months researching and educating others about life with visual impairment, her calling began to come into focus.

What surprised her is just how much she personally changed through the project. At the start of the semester, Keiner saw blindness as a hurdle between her and her goals. She resisted Lin’s early encouragement to develop a change project related to vision because she didn’t want blindness to become her brand. But she softened, and as she spent months researching and educating others about life with visual impairment, her calling began to come into focus.

“The whole project gave me a different perspective on how my vision connects to my vocation,” she says. “Now the challenge is, ‘How do I allow this to continue to grow?’”

Keiner doesn’t know what the future looks like, or exactly how blindness fits into her work. Perhaps she will work as a private contractor, educating organizations on how to best accommodate visually impaired employees. Or maybe one day she’ll achieve her goal of opening her own practice, offering encouragement and providing tools for success to those who are facing the same challenges she has.

For now what matters is this: Keiner’s change project opened her mind to a vocational reality she’d never imagined, and it left a lasting effect on her peers and her school.

“Even more than educating me on visual impairment, she has been vulnerable and open to my questions,” says Kris Anne Baker, one of Keiner’s classmates. “She has inspired me to be a better person, to be courageous in the face of adversity, and to always believe in the future despite how impossible it may seem.”

Baker, too, experienced immense personal change through her own change project. She has long dreamed of opening a community arts center, but for years sat still in a retail job, too afraid to take action. With professor Lin encouraging her forward, Baker used her change project to get out into the community, do research and lay the groundwork for an initiative she called United Arts, which is focused on making art accessible to all populations.

“I am not as afraid of it as I used to be,” she says. “I don’t feel stuck anymore.”

This pattern of personal change is exactly what professor Lin hopes for each student. To him, change projects aren’t just about changing a community in need. They’re also about changing his students – empowering them to find their passion, identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and graduate from the program ready to take action.

“He says, ‘Stop tiptoeing around the pool. Just jump in with both feet. Even if you just impact one life, it’s still worth it. So why not try?’” says Jordan Deines, who focused her change project on raising money for a well in a southern Rwandan village.

Lin is the reason Deines pursued community practice, which is social work that tackles issues on a larger, organizational level instead of in one-on-one services. Lin insists that large-scale change is possible, and he has the background to prove it. Before coming to Oregon, Lin spent nine years overseeing project development across China for World Vision. Under his leadership, workers across the huge country made change through disaster relief, orphan care, sanitation improvements and healthcare initiatives.

“He’s challenged me to believe more in myself and believe that widespread change is actually possible,” Deines says.

Lin is indeed a challenger. Energetic and enthusiastic by nature, he pushes his students to step up and take ownership of their dreams.

“The world doesn’t need to be like this,” he says. “The world could be a much, much better place if we are able to act according to our inner voice. If you’re able to use entrepreneurship and innovation and be a leader, you’re going to impact a lot of people, so I’m trying to cultivate those things.”

For Keiner, Baker and Deines, their time with Lin is now over. But it’s only a matter of months until the next cohort arrives – 11 pairs of eyes watching Lin pace the room, listening to him pitch the idea of a fictitious institute that they have no idea will change their lives.

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