At the corner of Fair Park Boulevard and 28th Street in Little Rock stands a life-size statue of a lion, painted white, scanning the traffic. The cat stands at the entrance to World Services for the Blind in tribute to the Lions Club of Little Rock which seeded the organization with a $10,000 donation in 1947.
Over the years, the statue has become more than a neighborhood landmark; it aptly symbolizes the ferocious resolve of the people WSB serves and the staff members who work there, helping individual clients reach their full potential. And no one bears a more striking spiritual resemblance to the regal mascot than Sharon Giovinazzo, president and CEO.
Just ask Loretha Robinson, a 50-something client who’s dropped into Giovinazzo’s office on a summer morning to share her story. A recovering addict who lost her sight as an adult, Robinson credits her very life to WSB and its leonine leader.
“This is my pride. You know, they say the lioness is the one who keeps the pride together,” Robinson says, then pointed at the CEO. “You see her? That’s our lioness. She fights for us. She feeds us, be it food or nourishment or inspiring us to do better, not to just settle for less. Because we have so much to offer.
“That big old lion out there? Well, he’s the king, but the king always stands behind the queen. Ms. Sharon, there’s our queen right there.”
Giovinazzo squirms at such accolades; she’s much happier giving clients and staff the credit — along with a king-size dose of good-natured ribbing — as she helps them tackle the challenges of daily living, learning a skill, reclaiming their lives.
“There’s different pockets of what we do,” she says. “There’s probably 150 agencies that serve the blind, especially on the comprehensive blindness side. They provide the basics — orientation and mobility, Braille assistive technology, stuff like that.
“Our main focus is vocational because that’s rehabilitation, getting people the skills they need in order to go to work. In our residential program, we start transitional youth at age 15 and we go all the way up. The oldest person we’ve served here in Arkansas was 104.”
Giovinazzo, who took over here in 2015, has a lot of parable-like references to describe the people and mission of WSB. One of her favorites is taken from the tale of a man meeting a youngster on the seashore carrying beached starfish back into the ocean. When told he couldn’t possibly save them all — and therefore wasn’t making a difference — the child placed one in the water and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
“The mission of WSB is empowering people who are blind and visually impaired in the United States and around the world to achieve sustainable independence,” Giovinazzo says. “We accomplish that through meeting the person where they’re at and getting them to where they need to go.
“That’s a different definition for every person who walks through these doors. You can’t come in here and everything’s cookie-cutter and everybody has the exact same journey. Everything we do is customized for each and every individual because each one of them brings a unique set of skills, habits, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”
As she speaks, a group of adult students gathers in the courtyard outside her window. Giovinazzo can’t physically see them but recognizes them as immediately and individually as if she could; known both by name and by story. It’s a skill she has honed and improved with time, philosophically as well as physically.
“If I could go back and tell my younger self something, it’s, ‘Listen. Everybody has a story,'” she says. “That’s something I missed previously and that all leads up to where I’m at today. It took me losing my sight to gain a vision. I feel like I had something to give here.”
FIRST HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE
Born to a 13-year-old mother, Giovinazzo was adopted and reared by her grandparents, Helen and Ward Butts, in the green swamps of central Florida. Hers was a simple upbringing, rooted in the unyielding ethics of hard work, self-reliance and dogged perseverance.
“I was a straight-A student and I mean, driven. Absolutely driven because I had to please my parents,” she says. “Mom was seventh-grade educated; Dad was third-grade educated. I might have had parents who had never been to high school, but they wanted to make sure that I had an education.
“I was the first person in my family, ever, to graduate high school. It was a big deal to get through school. Mom drove me all the time to do better and make learning a lifelong process. That’s still ingrained in me, every moment of my life.”
Giovinazzo glimpsed her future the day she opened the “TV Guide” at age 9 and found a postcard advertisement for the Army, urging her to “Be All You Can Be.” Eight days after high school graduation, Giovinazzo enlisted and spent three years at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, trained as a combat medic. The silent meekness of her childhood — born of bullying over her hand-me-down clothes and a stutter she conquered mimicking country singer Mel Tillis on television — evaporated in the service.
“I was always that one out front, leading other people. It kind of happened naturally,” she says. “I didn’t know what leadership was; there was just always the opportunity to step up and do something and apply skills that you knew or that you’re baptized by fire in along the way.”
Following active duty, Giovinazzo joined a Reserve unit in North Carolina through which she would serve a 90-day deployment to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. She left the service without a firm career plan but excelled at every job she fell into, from an automotive dealership and a textile factory to health care. Along the way, she’d marry twice, bear one son and enter her 30s not knowing her true destiny was around the corner, waiting in the dark.
LOSING HER SIGHT
“I started having really bad headaches. I just got sicker and sicker,” Giovinazzo says of her fateful turn. “I went to my GP and I remember they gave me some paperwork. I sat down to fill it out and I couldn’t see it.
“I took it back and I said, ‘You must have made a mistake. This paperwork isn’t right.’ The woman says, ‘Why don’t you go sit down and the nurse will help you.’ I went over to sit down and tripped on something, cussed at it.”
During the exam, Giovinazzo described her symptoms including blurry vision, at which the physician asked her to read an eye chart at the end of a 20-foot hallway.
“I couldn’t see the end of the hallway or the eye chart. Everything was really fuzzy,” she says. “Doctor asked me how I got there, told him I drove, and he took away my keys. That was May 9, 2001, the last time I ever drove.”
Tests revealed multiple sclerosis and a related lesion on her sixth cranial nerve, causing her optic nerves to sputter and eventually die. In seven months, she’d go from 20/20 vision to 0/0, her sight replaced by an all-consuming bitterness and grief. One day, she finally broke down and called a local agency, Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Utica, N.Y., for help.
“They sent out a case manager and did an initial evaluation that just annoyed the heck out of me,” she says. “I was angry at that point in time. I was mad about what I’d lost, not seeing the potential of what I had gained. The stupidest things happen during those periods of time. I had no goal at this point.”
Her caseworkers endured her bluster and patiently yet firmly kept putting tasks in her path from dressing herself and cleaning the house to harnessing assistive technology and walking in public. She still remembers the leap of faith that stepping off a curb the first time felt like or learning how to use the bus, something she’d not even done as a sighted person.
With each win, she wanted more — a college degree led to a graduate degree and then another, both earned “AB” or “after blindness.” She held a succession of jobs in what she calls the blind biz, a career that started packing cases of latex gloves on an assembly line of a blind-adapted factory, then later in organizational management, public policy and nonprofits.
By 2013, she was feeling a consistent tug to lead an organization and with her husband’s passing that year, the time was ripe for a change.
“After I lost Joe, I just needed a change of scenery,” she says. “I even thought retirement would be great at that point in time. That didn’t work. You can only clean your closet so many times.
“A colleague called and said, ‘I think, there’s a great opportunity for you in Arkansas.’ I was like, Arkansas?”
RESTORING A REPUTATION
The interview at World Services for the Blind proved mere formality and she reported for duty August 3, 2015. She had her first board meeting just four days later, but it was time enough to see the challenges pressing in from all sides.
“It’s a small field; there’s not a lot that you don’t know about what happens in the blind biz. I knew that the agency was in trouble,” she says. “I didn’t know exactly where it was. I’m not sure that the full spectrum of how bad it was was realized by the board at that time.
“It wasn’t like somebody embezzled money or stole money out of the coffers. I don’t think anything malicious was going on. They simply lost focus. I think they were just concentrating too much on the bigger world around them to see it crumbling underneath their feet.”
Giovinazzo set about the slow, arduous process of putting back together the reputation and solvency of WSB, which had fallen so far it couldn’t pay the water bill and was a blink away from closing altogether. One staff member, one donor, one student at a time, she rebuilt what took decades before her to construct using a natural flair for storytelling and an infectious optimism for the future.
“I remember sitting down with the board and saying, ‘Each journey begins with just one step,'” she says. “I told them, ‘I don’t know where we’re going, but right now my goal for the first year is to hold the hill and make as much forward progress as I can. Even if that’s only an inch, that’s forward progress. As long as you don’t backslide, it’s progress.'”
Today, distance learning technology extends WSB’s reach to students across 17 states and capital improvements have steadily improved the campus’s aging systems. A thriving scholarship program helps pay for some students’ attendance and the 40-member staff has been bolstered through strategic hires and partnerships with complementary service organizations. Giovinazzo’s fingerprints are everywhere.
“I have to say to you, she is one of the more impressive human beings you’ll ever meet. Sharp. Energetic,” says Dick Ferrell, a Dallas real estate developer and former WSB board member who remains a benefactor of the organization’s scholarship program. “Sharon Giovinazzo is at the heart and the brain of WSB. It just wouldn’t be humming without her. She is the engine that drives it.
Photo by Cary Jenkins
My students come in here and they all fight so hard to get into these doors. They come in, they find a family, they find commonality and they make lifelong friends. Broken crayons still color. Sometimes youíve just got to bring someoneís color back.î -Sharon Giovinazzo
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
“You walk through that campus with her and she will turn on the personality and the charm and light up those lives. It’s not just the students; you go into the kitchen and the help there just glows when she walks into the room. They pick up on her energy. It’s a privilege to support WSB; as somebody from the donor class, it feels so good to know how this money is going to get spent and the result it’s going to have.”
RIDING OUT THE STORM
Nowhere has Giovinazzo’s leadership stood out more than in 2020 amid the covid-19 pandemic. On the cusp of the state’s first confirmed case, March 11, she brought staff and students into the WSB auditorium for an announcement.
“Everybody came in and it was the most silent procession because there had already been businesses throughout the United States that had closed,” she says. “The talk was, in order to flatten the curve, that we may have to as well. And the students came in and they said, ‘Are you sending us home?’
“I’d sat in this office before we called that meeting and I looked at my population. Traditionally … about 10% of our clientele is homeless. On that day, a third of them were. I thought, if I close my doors, they have nowhere to go. They can’t go to a homeless shelter. There’s no place for them to go. There’s going to be blind people on the street who are going to be dead because they have covid because you can’t socially distance as a blind person without the appropriate training.
“So, at that meeting, I was like, ‘Nope. We’re going to ride out this storm and we’re going to be fine.'”
Giovinazzo locked down the campus, sequestering residential students, and sent staff home to teach remotely. She was on campus every day, self-isolating at night at home with her collection of pets, only to return to her sentinel post the next morning. More than once she fretted over her decision, but she never questioned it.
“One week, there were 482 cases, 82% from this type of setting. At that point, I was like, oh my gosh, I have not made the right decision if something happens to somebody,” she say. “I mean, I’m a big girl. I’ve got broad shoulders. I’m more than happy to stand up behind the decisions that I make and why I make them.
“But, boy, I tell ya, there’s disruptive leadership, which I really, really like, and then there’s times where you feel so alone. No matter how supportive the staff was and no matter who I brought in here to discuss and toss things back and forth, I knew that ultimately, I was the one who needed to make that decision.”
At the end of July, WSB was still what Giovinazzo calls “a ‘rona-free zone.” She has taken campus off lockdown to accept new students, about 70% of whom are homeless, and life has gone on. Still, the retelling chokes in her throat between the memory of those worried students and the cathartic emotion that has come in the aftermath.
“I might be a person who’s lost her vision, but I had access to resources, immediately. I didn’t have to fight what they fought,” she says. “They’ve overcome so much and they’re an inspiration, every day. They come in with sheer grit and determination that they’re going to do it.”
Outside, students pass in twos and threes. They’re barely audible, but Giovinazzo turns her face toward the window as if touched on the shoulder. She smiles; she’s there with them, walking by their side, fighting back against the seamless cloak of darkness and despair to rise, move forward, roar.
“My students come in here and they all fight so hard to get into these doors. They come in, they find a family, they find commonality and they make lifelong friends,” she says. “Broken crayons still color. Sometimes you’ve just got to bring someone’s color back.”