When A Stranger Leaves You $125 Million

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Imagine there's something you've been trying to do for decades and then a total stranger steps in and makes it possible. That happened recently to a San Francisco nonprofit group. From member station KQED, Amy Standen has the story.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: About year ago, Bryan Bashin received a strange email from a law firm in Seattle.

BRYAN BASHIN: There was just something about the email that was a little mysterious in its compactness. A businessman has passed away. I think you might want to talk to us.

STANDEN: Bashin is the head of a nonprofit called LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He'd never heard of this Seattle businessman, a guy named Donald Sirkin. And yet, with no warning or explanation, Sirkin had left almost his entire estate to the LightHouse, a little more than $125 million.

BASHIN: It's one of those experiences where time kind of stands still, where you know that every little bit of what you're experiencing will be engraved in your memory.

STANDEN: Bashin is 60 years old. He's tall, and he's almost always smiling. And the impression he gives is of being just this entirely functional, confident blind person.

But it turns out that this Bashin is a relatively recent incarnation. Because for a long time, between when he started losing his sight when he was a teenager until he was almost 40, Bashin didn't identify as blind at all. He told almost no one.

BASHIN: It's like when somebody says - you see the over there? And I would nod and say, yeah, I see that. I didn't see that. I missed stuff in the movies.

STANDEN: He says this is much more common than you might think.

BASHIN: In the blind community, we say we're in the closet about it. And it is just like being in the closet in the gay community. You try to pass, and you try to be somebody that you're not.

STANDEN: Bashin says when he finally went to get help, at the age of 38, to start learning the tools of blindness, like how to use a cane and read Braille, the agency that received him was shabby. The whole place had an air of defeat.

BASHIN: If I wasn't already depressed about looking at the rest of my life blind, that would have done it for me (laughter). None of that period made me feel like I could be a cool blind person and do stuff in the future.

STANDEN: What did it make you feel like?

BASHIN: I felt ashamed, and I felt resolved that I would never set foot in that place again.

STANDEN: But he did. Eventually, he got a job there and then another job at a different blindness group. Since then, he's made it his life's mission to demonstrate that, with the right tools and training, blindness can often be reduced to the level of inconvenience.

BASHIN: Don't just hide. This is not a tragedy or a shame. This is not some kind of deep loss. This is just another side of being human. Share it. Play with it. Grow with it.

STANDEN: Bashin says the bequest from Donald Sirkin will let the LightHouse reach and help many more blind people than ever before. But he says it's also a change to start chipping away at the shame that so many blind people seem to feel. For starters, there will be a new state-of-the-art headquarters with training facilities in downtown San Francisco.

BASHIN: And when you get right down to it, the Sirkin bequest is about feeling like we can dream and have options and be proud of who we are.

STANDEN: Last year, Bryan went to Seattle to try and learn more about this mysterious stranger who had donated $125 million to a group that had never heard of him.

He learned that Don Sirkin had had a secret, too. He had started to go blind. Like Bashin, Sirkin hid it. Unlike Bashin, Sirkin never came out of the closet as a blind man. Bryan Bashin hopes the bequest will make it possible for many more blind people to do what he did. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

SIMON: And that story came to us from KQED's new podcast, "The Leap."

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