MILWAUKEE — 'Dining in the Dark' is an annual fundraiser hosted by Vision Forward, an organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of visually impaired people in our community.
The non-profit provides services from skills training to adaptive sports for young people.
At this year's fundraiser, hundreds of people took the journey into the world of vision loss, putting on blindfolds for a four-course meal.
Dr. Tom Connor, an ophthalmologist with the Medical College of Wisconsin, is a regular at the event. His patients are many of the same people Vision Forward serves.
Despite dining in the dark before, Dr. Connor said he still finds there are challenges to the experience.
"Oh my gosh, it's a super tight mask. It's really, really dark," Dr. Connor said as he sat down to eat and put on his blindfold.
He and his wife invited several friends to the event who haven't had the Dining in the Dark experience. In the middle of their pre-dinner chat, many of their hands were slowly grazing the table in front of them, identifying the location of silverware and wine glasses. Dr. Connor kept his hands placed over his silverware while waiting for the first course.
"If I lose this, I'm lost," he said.
The meal was brought out by waiters who gave diners a heads up before placing a hot bowl in front of them. Again, diners' hands began exploring what was in front of them.
"It seems like soup but it has a crust lid on it, nobody told me that. But we're finding out way through it," Dr. Connor said as he explored his first course. "My first two spoonfuls had hardly anything in it, but we're gonna keep going."
The chef behind the meal, Wisconsin Club Downtown Executive Chef Allen Novaltik, carefully crafted the menu.
"I became very, very aware that this has to be easy to eat, but it still has to have all of those flavors and textures that you would want in a regular dining experience," Novaltik said. "The idea is we want surprise."
That first course was a dome soup.
"Because the puff pastry is over the soup, they can't smell it at all. But when they break open the top with a spoon, there's essence of truffle and creme fraiche, so there will be this burst of smell for them," Novaltik said of the soup.
"It smells really good," Dr. Connor said as he began to dig in.
A guest at his table said, "It's kind of hard to find, to get my spoon to my mouth. I can totally smell it though."
Dr. Connor said the event is eye-opening for everyone involved.
"Being part of this experience lets you realize how much those folks have to deal with every day, even something as simple as eating a meal that we do all the time," Dr. Connor said. "It put things in perspective how much they've had to overcome and you respect their determination and the tools they use to get things accomplished every day."
Cory Ballard, the Director of Technology with Vision Forward, is one of the people who won't be taking a blindfold off at the end of the night. Ballard said he's been blind for about 35 years.
"[The event], it's not for individuals to get a complete understanding of what it's like to be living with vision loss, because only someone with vision loss can really understand what those challenges are that they face each day. But it starts to give the individual a little better (understanding), a little deeper understanding about what individuals face with visual impairment," Ballard said.
His hope for the annual event is that it raises awareness about what Vision Forward is doing in the community and teaches empathy to those who don't experience vision loss.
"I'd like people to understand that everybody needs some type of assistance," Ballard said. "Having that patience and being open to that experience and provide the assistance that each person needs can really make a life a lot easier."