Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006


Compassionate Companions
A Man and His Dog Reach Tough Teens

by Deborah Circelli

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the August 22, 2005, edition of the Daytona Beach News Journal. J.D. Townsend is vice president of the Greater Daytona Beach Chapter and a member of the board of directors of the NFB of Florida. Here is the article:

With ease, John "JD" Townsend maneuvers through the halls at Halifax Behavioral Services with a close friend by his side. The sometimes playful blond is not your typical friend. During Townsend's counseling sessions his companion garners occasional hugs from children. He's even been known to give them a kiss on the arm when he senses they are depressed or upset. Staff members on occasion also take advantage of some Pippen time to cheer them up.

He's not basketball player Scottie Pippen or one of the main characters in Lord of the Rings. Pippen is Townsend's six-year-old Seeing Eye Labrador retriever. "The kids generally like him more than they like me," Townsend, a licensed clinical social worker, says with a chuckle, reaching down to give him a pat. "But that's OK with me. Pippen is such a sweet boy it's hard not to love him."

Townsend, fifty-seven, has counseled children and adults for about twenty-five years, including the last four-and-a-half years at Halifax Behavioral, where he does individual and group sessions for teens and adults with mental-health and behavioral problems. Legally blind, Townsend was diagnosed as a teen with a genetic condition that ruins the retina. He uses the dog or a white cane to guide him. "Pippen is very compassionate," says Townsend. "Sometimes, if someone is upset, it wouldn't be quite right to be hugging on me, but it's fine if they want to give my dog a hug around the neck."

Generally, Pippen will fall asleep when Townsend starts talking, as the dog did one recent afternoon, lying on a large yellow-and-blue pillow next to his owner's desk. "Some people feel more comfortable and at home--and in less of a hospital setting--when there is a dog around," Townsend says. Townsend sometimes allows children to put on a blindfold and walk with his white cane to build their self-confidence. Being blind, he says, is not an issue--"It's just one part of me."

Kathy Wilkes, an outpatient therapist for Halifax Behavioral Services who hired Townsend, says she had her doubts about hiring a blind therapist to work with children with behavioral problems. She was concerned about his safety. But after meeting Townsend and learning he had a history of working with potentially dangerous patients in New York, she was sold. "He had such a way about him that made me feel like he could do anything," says Wilkes, who supervised him for three years. "He's witty, and he's dedicated to helping people."

Sean Richter, another therapist, says Townsend has been able to reach some of the hardest kids when others couldn't. The teens seem to open up to him, Richter says, "probably because they are not being judged by the way they look or handle themselves."

Townsend, who was born in New Jersey, moved to Volusia County with his wife eleven years ago. His blindness doesn't limit him in life, whether he's working on the roof of his Holly Hill home or running in five New York City marathons in the mid-eighties and early nineties. "I'm just living my life," Townsend says. "I don't feel any sense of tragedy." Accepting his blindness, though, was not easy. There was a period of denial. The only blind person he saw growing up was a man who sold pencils on a street corner. Townsend didn't want the same future.

He went on to become an actor and in his twenties owned a small theater company. But after falling off a stage, he realized he had to change careers because of his failing eyesight. Townsend, who now has a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees, turned to counseling. "Mental illness is perhaps the most painful of disabilities," Townsend says. "If I can find a way to help people deal with it better and relieve their pain, it gives me pleasure."

In addition he holds weekly support groups at the Orientation and Adjustment Center in Daytona Beach for people who have recently become blind. He also is vice president of the National Federation of the Blind Greater Daytona Beach Chapter and serves on the state board. Each October he participates in White Cane [Safety] Day, trying to educate drivers that they must stop when a blind person has his or her white cane extended.

"He doesn't relinquish how he thinks or feels just to be popular. He believes in standing up for his personal convictions," says Kathy Davis, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida and president of the Daytona Beach Chapter.

Townsend says more work needs to be done with more than 70 percent of working-age blind people nationally unemployed. But public perceptions are hard to change. He describes going to a restaurant recently and a waitress asking his wife what he wanted to eat instead of addressing him. Society still sees people who are blind, he says, as broken. He and his wife of twelve years, Carol Beall, also a licensed clinical social worker, spend their spare time riding a two-seater bike and a two-person pedal boat. They also sing and play instruments in a choir that performs for people with mental illnesses.

Back in his office, his clock sounds and his cell phone goes off. He jokes that he often talks to his electronics. His computer recites what he types and what he scans. He reads several papers a day on the telephone. "I have stereo hearing," he says, laughing.
And he has Pippen.