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Blindness with a vision

  • The Rev. Mindy Heppe navigates the sidewalks of Shenandoah aided by her white cane.
    The Rev. Mindy Heppe navigates the sidewalks of Shenandoah aided by her white cane.
Published February 08. 2013 05:02PM

The Reverend Mindy Heppe was born different from the rest of the population.

She stands out in a crowd simply by being there.

But what makes her special is the same unique quality that gives her special vision

Heppe is albino.

And she doesn't mind being different. For her, it's not a big deal.

In fact, she considers it simply one of many different characteristics of her general make up, the same as everyone else.

"At some point you realize that everybody is different," says the Shenandoah woman.

Heppe always has been exceptionally bright. In fact, she started college before age 16. Yet she humbly admits to sometimes being behind the eight-ball.

"I've been slow here and there," she says. "I never got around to having kids until I was in my forties. And I was 52 before I figured out that I am blind."

Like many others with albinism, Heppe has sensitive eyes. Those with albinism often have atypically developed retinas, optic nerve hypoplasia, and nystagmus, which is a condition of uncontrolled eye movements that are an ongoing, involuntary attempt to focus.

Still, Heppe has been able to function remarkably well with the vision she has. But she is unable to drive a car.

"As a student I read standard print without magnification. I continued to do so until middle age, when a condition called presbyopia hit me a bit harder than it does some folks," says Heppe, 53. "What albinos see well: color and contrast. What we don't see well: detail."

Last year while attending a program of the National Federation of the Blind, Heppe and her son Yang, also albino and blind, received their white canes. It was there Heppe was told she is blind. She actually had been blind for many years.

"I have considerably more sight than Yang does, but it is what some of us with albinism have dubbed 'crap vision,'" Heppe explains.

Heppe is pastor at two small Lutheran churches after having taught in Ireland and Lithuania. She is a board member of the Pennsylvania Parents of Blind Children and is the mother of three children through international adoption. They include Yang, 13, from China; Hana, 17, and Eden, 20, both from Ethiopia.

Heppe represents the fifth generation of her family to live in the Shenandoah-Ringtown area. Her ancestors operated the town's U. S. Hotel. Her father was from Sheppton and her mother, Hazleton. But Heppe also has strong family ties to Tamaqua.

In fact, Heppe's grandmother, Verna Margaritta Yost, was related to Tamaqua Officer Benjamin Yost. Yost was the town cop murdered allegedly by the legendary Molly Maguires early in the morning of July 6, 1875, while he extinguished a gas lamp at the corner of West Broad and Lehigh streets.

The "lamplighter" story has been relayed in Heppe's family down through the years.

If there's one thing that separates Heppe from the crowd, aside from the color of her skin and hair, it's a deep sense of compassion.

"I was predisposed, due in no small part to my albinism, to empathy," she says. "I've been stared at once or twice."

Heppe recalls the tears of her youth - losing her mother when she was only 8, and unpleasant experiences at school.

"I'd been called 'ghost' from earliest elementary school. As I edged toward adolescence, I got a lot more 'witch.'"

If the hurt caused by taunting is felt in the soul, so is the compassion that grows out of it.

It was only natural, perhaps, that Heppe developed a keen sense of caring and a heart that identifies with those in need.

"Being part of a group that's targeted, you notice things that other people don't notice." Heppe's albinism may have heightened that type of awareness.

"We're good at finding or making connections between disparate items," she says. "I think it has to do with those oddly routed optic nerves: we have experience making neural pathways with unusual twists and turns."

With Heppe, that kind of vision helps her eyes to peer into the soul. And that vision led her to a career in God's service.

Even as a young girl, Heppe felt a calling to the ministry.

"The Lutheran Church started ordaining women when I was 10," she says.

Her compassion is apparent in how she ministers at her church. For instance, Heppe's church routinely makes clothing available to the public by placing a rack on the sidewalk. It is free for the taking. While other churches might do something similar, Heppe takes a unique approach. She relies on an honor system for distribution of the garments. At her church, there is no request for identification, nor are you required to prove your need.

It's all about faith.

Having albinism can be a lifetime education, says Heppe. For instance, she didn't realize that albinism is considered a special need. It is something she learned after adopting Yang.

Heppe regularly discloses such details in stories she authors. Her views and experiences appear regularly in a publication called "In Trust," a magazine published by the Association of Boards in Theological Education.

But a large part of her time is spent caring to the spiritual needs of members of the congregations at St. John Lutheran, Shenandoah, and Zion Lutheran, Girardville.

If someone is in need, Heppe is there to lend a hand.

"I take human connections seriously," she says. "We're all in this together."

And so when it comes to helping a hurting soul, Mindy Heppe has 20-20 vision.

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