Burke living life fully while blind, speaks about being bullied
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Molly Burke was four years old when she first heard the diagnosis “retinitis pigmentosa.” She was too young to fully comprehend that she would one day live in the dark.
Having found hope after being viciously bullied and learning to live with decreasing vision, Burke spoke at Holdingford’s WE Day event Feb. 4, to let students know that no matter what a person’s circumstances, life is good and should be lived to the fullest.
WE Day is a movement of young people leading local and global change. A number of Holdingford students attended Minnesota’s first WE Day gathering in October, in St. Paul.
Burke began her “Light After Darkness” program by asking her audience to close their eyes and imagine waking up every day in the dark — and not being able to simply open their eyes and it would be light.
“I experienced depression and recovery,” Burke said. “It’s a journey of despair and hope.”
As she grew older, Burke gradually lost the ability to see at night. She began using a white cane.
Eventually she couldn’t tell the difference between blue or purple or green anymore. Her grades fell because she couldn’t see the chalkboard.
Then, one Tuesday in October when she was in eighth grade, her doctor told her something she’ll never forget, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see.”
As the students in Holdingford listened intently, Burke described several instances of bullying.
“There was disrespect from classmates and teachers as well,” she said. “There was social isolation and gossip.”
One afternoon, girls she considered to be her friends led her into the forest and abandoned her there, but not until they had broken her crutches (which she was using during recovery from an injury.) She couldn’t walk on her hurt ankle and couldn’t see where to go anyway.
“As a family, we decided I would not return to that school,” she said.
Burke experienced a long period of time where she couldn’t recall smiling.
Then she found The Foundation Fighting Blindness.
“I felt a glimmer of happiness,” she said. “But before I could heal, I had to grieve my loss. I started journaling.”
It had been Burke’s dream since third grade to have a guide dog. She was able to attend a guide dog school in Montreal, the youngest student and the only member of her class to pass. Her dog, Gypsy, goes with her everywhere.
“She’s my best friend,” Burke said.
Burke, who turned 20 four days after her appearance in Holdingford, learned to downhill ski and ride horses. She loves the performing arts and sings in a band.
Burke and Gypsy live in an apartment. Burke answered a student’s question about how she chose her clothes by explaining how she has every piece of clothing memorized by the touch of buttons, fabric or graphics. She declared herself a terrible cook and told students that her mom cooks and sends food for the week.
A resident of Ontario, Burke was a paralympic torchbearer for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. She carried the torch in Toronto as it made its way west to Vancouver.
“People were thanking me for how much hope I’d given them,” she said. “Hope can stem from courage and taking initiative. Live. Learn. Pass it on.”
Inspired by her brother, Brady’s, example, Burke went on a youth trip to Kenya, learning how to milk a goat, among other things.
“I met Cynthia there. When she held my hand, I knew I had made a true friend,” Burke said.
Burke admonished her audience that “nobody wants to be a victim; nobody wants to be that bully; nobody should be a bystander.”
She firmly believes that people can have an impact.
“We can’t escape the bullies but we can face up to them,” she said. “We can work together as a group.”
“As a teacher, we’re always looking for ways to stop the bullying,” said Frank Gosiak, Holdingford teacher and WE group coordinator. “WE Day is about the kids learning that they have the power to stop bullying together.”
“We’re really excited about this,” said Holdingford student Morgan Vouk. “We’re all hoping that this anti-bullying campaign will help people in our school be stronger together.”