ABSECON — Leon Brathwaite smiles as we walk arm-in-arm toward the door of the John D. Young Memorial Lions Blind Center because he’s glad he outsmarted me.
“I had you fooled,” he said. “You thought I could see.”
Brathwaite, 56, went blind two years ago due to glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve. Both of his parents and his grandmother contracted the disease, but his case is the most severe in his family.
Brathwaite said his condition reached an advanced state because he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same time and didn’t commit enough time to preventative eye care. He beat the cancer, but gradually lost his vision after eight years.
Brathwaite radiates optimism and has a knack for stringing together phrases that sound like they belong in a sermon.
“I often tell people when I had sight, I was in the dark. When I lost my sight was when I came into the light,” he said. “I was able to see everything for what it really is.”
Before he went blind, Brathwaite, a Pleasantville native, worked as a freelance photographer, taking pictures at weddings and other special events for 31 years.
“Everything that I looked at, even when I didn’t have a camera in my hand, was looking through a lens, always trying to take that perfect picture. There is no perfect picture. There's just amazing pictures that you take,” he said.
He got into photography when his youngest daughter was born. Doctors said she had a problem with one of her kidneys and wouldn’t survive.
“I wanted to pick up a camera and start taking pictures of her, as many pictures as I could, because they told me that she wasn’t going to make it that long. I didn’t pick up the camera to become a professional. I took it to get as many pictures of her as I could while she was here,” he said.
His daughter had surgery as an infant to remove the kidney and is now 31 years old. Brathwaite turned his passion for photography into a profession.
He is self-taught, but along the way he consulted veteran photographer Acey Troublefield, who founded Ace Photographer in Pleasantville in 1963.
“He would ask me about the lighting conditions, what cameras he’d be comfortable with using,” Troublefield said. “He’d have to find out what he’d be comfortable with, and once he was comfortable with a camera he’d need to learn the camera, what to do and not to do. He was good, very good.”
Brathwaite is retired from freelancing, but still takes pictures on a smaller scale at the blind center, a place he now dedicates his time to promote.
“There are 9,000 people out here that are visually impaired and blind in Atlantic County alone, and hardly anybody knows about that center,” he said. “That's what my life is right now. It's about bringing awareness to the community about being blind or keeping your sight.”
Brathwaite said he struggled with his blindness until he found the blind center and received guidance from Absecon Visionary Lions Club member Laurie Wilson-Haines. He is now a Lion Tamer, an officer in the club.
“There’s a difference when you were born blind. But to have sight and lose sight, it's worse than a roller coaster ride. And you have to get it together real quick or you can be stuck being depressed,” he said. “I was in that world until I went to that center and met everybody that was there.”
In addition to his work with the Lions Club, Brathwaite, who was a basketball coach in Pleasantville for more than 30 years, speaks to students in the school district, encouraging them to make positive choices in their lives.
“We talk to them about how important it is to stay out of these streets, stay out of these gangs, keep the guns out of here, stay off these drugs and stay in school so you get a better education and make a better life for yourself,” he said.
After going to jail for 30 days in 1984 on a weapons charge, Brathwaite decided to use his experience to become an advocate.
“When I got out, I decided to give my life back to these kids so they wouldn’t end up like that making wrong decisions,” he said. “I can’t save everybody or all of them, but the ones that I tell that will listen, I’m going to keep on talking till my last breath.”
Brathwaite said he will never stop advocating for the kids or for the blind community.
“I will keep moving forward until that last date comes.”