Jacque Olsen’s participation in the inaugural Phoenix VisionWalk on Saturday will be bittersweet.
The Tempe 56-year-old is looking forward to raising money and awareness for blinding retinal diseases, such as the one she was diagnosed with 22 years ago: retinitis pigmentosa. The gradual loss of her peripheral vision can best be described as looking through a drinking straw.
She’ll be walking with a group of friends and family in a team called “Webster’s Woofers.”
But the walk will be the last hurrah for her guide dog, Webster, who is retiring as a working dog in April.
“Everybody loves Webster,” said Olsen, a Valley native who has two sons, Micah and Matthew.
“Did she tell you she’s worn the dog out?” said her husband of 36 years, Dan Olsen.
Jacque Olsen has traveled around the world with Webster, a yellow Labrador retriever, who has been working by her side for seven years.
The two have traveled to Brazil eight times to visit friends with retinitis pigmentosa. She’s been on three cruises. And she has a planned trip to Illinois so Webster can spend time with his girlfriend, Autumn, a guide dog who was trained at the same school as Webster: Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Mich.
He’s been her “eyes” when she’s needed them the most: riding on public transportation, doing volunteer and charity work, and traveling.
Olsen will get her new guide dog in May from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. And Webster will become the family pet, along with Malcolm, her Scottish terrier, and Mimi, the stray tortoise-shell cat who walked into the Olsens’ life one day.
Dealing with a new guide dog is just part of life with degenerative eye loss.
She realizes now she always had problems with her eyesight. She’s worn glasses since the fifth grade.
She never saw well in the dark, and has always had some sort of night blindness. She discovered this when she was a teenager learning to drive, and almost got in a car accident because she couldn’t see the road. Olsen quit driving 18 years ago.
Olsen realized she really had problems with her eyes when she was 35 and getting her master’s degree in food science at Arizona State University. She would play volleyball with her friends and remembers one day when she got spiked in the face because she couldn’t see the ball coming. The ball broke her glasses, and when she went for a new pair, the optometrist diagnosed the retinitis pigmentosa.
She went to a specialist and discovered she had already lost two-thirds of her peripheral vision. It was such a gradual change she didn’t realize it until something drastic happened.
She jokingly calls herself the “queen of adjustment.” Even today, the slow degeneration of her eyesight comes at irregular intervals.
The unpredictable disease could degenerate her eyes until she’s completely blind.
“The tunnel gets smaller and smaller until it closes completely,” Olsen said. “Right now, I have at least six degrees of vision.”
VisionWalk is a dream Olsen brought to the Valley after hearing of similar walks around the country. Olsen is the walk chairwoman, and Dan Olsen is the fundraising chairman of the Arizona chapter of Foundation Fighting Blindness, the nonprofit that puts on the walk.
Since her retirement with a medical disability from the food industry in 1996, Jacque Olsen has been keeping busy by actively volunteering with Foundation Fighting Blindness, as the Arizona chapter president, and the Tempe Mayor’s Commission on Disability Concerns.
She also helps train Valley Metro bus drivers to give them the blind and service animal perspective. She gives presentations around the Valley on her disease, and she leads a low-vision support group at her house the second Sunday of the month.
To reach Jacque Olsen, call (480) 894-0712 or e-mail email@example.com (Yes, her dog has his own e-mail address).
What: Phoenix VisionWalk, a family-friendly 3K and 5K walk, with bouncy inflatables, face painting, food and a mariachi band
Where: Arizona Horse Lovers Park, 19224 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix
When: Saturday, 8:30 a.m. registration, 9:30 a.m. walk
Registration and donations: