Episode 27 – Bob Sonnenberg: The Man, The Challenge and The Unstoppable Commitment
Bob Sonnenberg grew up as what most people would call a “normal individual”. He went to school, had a good home life and after college he went to work. However, several years ago, his “normal” life changed when in an instant he lost almost all of his eyesight and entered a whole new world. However, Bob internally rejected the typical view held by most people toward losing their sight. Bob moved forward and demonstrated that he truly has an unstoppable mindset.
Today I invite you to meet this strong and confident individual. Learn how he not only has survived but how he thrives and gives back to all of us in so many ways. Bob Sonnenberg has mostly been an unsung hero, but today we put his song out there for everyone to hear and celebrate.
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About the Guest:
Bob Sonnenberg, CEO
Bob is a native of Marin County and a fifth generation Californian. He has more than 30 years of experience in finance, development, and investments, including operating his own brokerage and insurance business and manufacturing business. Prior to joining EBC, he served for more than 10 years as Associate Director of Planned Giving and Major Donor Officer for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Bob earned his MBA from Golden Gate University. Devoted to his community, Bob is an advocate for quality of life for older adults and people living with disabilities. He serves on the board of Whistlestop and Marin County Estate Planning Council and is a past Mill Valley Rotary member as well as having served on the Board of the Community Institute of Psychotherapy (CIP) for over 10 years.
Bob leads an active and independent lifestyle and enjoys hiking, gardening and tandem bike riding. He lives with his wife Cindy and guide dog, Langley, in San Rafael, CA.
About the Host:
Michael Hingson is a New York Times best-selling author, international lecturer, and Chief Vision Officer for accessiBe. Michael, blind since birth, survived the 9/11 attacks with the help of his guide dog Roselle. This story is the subject of his best-selling book, Thunder Dog.
Michael gives over 100 presentations around the world each year speaking to influential groups such as Exxon Mobile, AT&T, Federal Express, Scripps College, Rutgers University, Children’s Hospital, and the American Red Cross just to name a few. He is Ambassador for the National Braille Literacy Campaign for the National Federation of the Blind and also serves as Ambassador for the American Humane Association’s 2012 Hero Dog Awards.
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UM Intro/Outro 00:00
Access Cast and accessiBe Initiative presents Unstoppable Mindset. The podcast where inclusion, diversity and the unexpected meet. Hi, I’m Michael Hingson, Chief Vision Officer for accessiBe and the author of the number one New York Times bestselling book, Thunder dog, the story of a blind man, his guide dog and the triumph of trust. Thanks for joining me on my podcast as we explore our own blinding fears of inclusion unacceptance and our resistance to change. We will discover the idea that no matter the situation, or the people we encounter, our own fears, and prejudices often are our strongest barriers to moving forward. The unstoppable mindset podcast is sponsored by accessiBe, that’s a c c e s s i capital B e. Visit www.accessibe.com to learn how you can make your website accessible for persons with disabilities. And to help make the internet fully inclusive by the year 2025. Glad you dropped by we’re happy to meet you and to have you here with us.
On April the 16th at 2pm North American instant time, blind musicians from across the globe are getting together for an online benefit concert for Ukraine. It’s called we’re with you. And all money raised goes to the World Blind unions unity fund for Ukraine. To learn more, including how to listen and how to perform it. We’re with you. Visit mushroom fm.com/with you. That’s mushroom fm.com/with you.
Michael Hingson 01:58
Hi, and thanks for dropping by Welcome to unstoppable mindset where inclusion, diversity and the unexpected meet least that’s what we say. And I’m glad that you’re able to be here and hope that you enjoy our session today. We have a person that I regard as a special guest. He’s been a very close friend for oh my gosh, 16 years or more. Bob Sonnenberg and I met at Guide Dogs for the Blind. And he was looking at getting a job and looking at the concept of having a guide dog and I was working at Guide Dogs for the Blind and we had a chance to meet and talk and friendship has grown from there. It’s kind of all turned around a couple of years ago, he drafted me to serve on a board for an organization of which he is the executive director of the Erlbaum center of the blind. In Santa Rosa, California. Bob, welcome to unstoppable mindset.
Bob Sonnenberg 02:51
Well, thank you so much, Michael, for for having me for inviting me and it has been quite a journey over the last 16 years, that’s for sure.
Michael Hingson 03:02
Well, I would love to hear about the journey, that’s a good place to start. So tell us a little about you in general, you know, you grew up I know as a as a sighted person and so on. And then things change but tell us about your life and your journey.
Bob Sonnenberg 03:19
So, well, where do you start? Okay, so one of the things is that that is probably unique to me maybe in being a native Californian and a seventh or eighth generation Californian but dating back to the 1820s here in the state of California. So somewhat unique and and there’s not a lot of us in that in that club. But I grew up here in the San Francisco Bay Area, spent most of my childhood in and Marin County, California just north of San Francisco been happily married for 40 years and that’s been a journey and have have two young young boys real proud of that both married and live really close by to me. So on a personal level, it’s been a it’s been pretty terrific to have be surrounded by not only great friends but also great family. And my background, it’s while the childhood years were spent here in the North Bay in Northern California. I’ve also had a lot of experience in one of my lifes I was a cowboy and was on the junior rodeo circuit years ago so pretty fearless as far as my adventures experiences and love sports and I love the concept of unstoppable because I think it’s just a great not to have any upper limits with your life. And like Michael said, I 16 years ago I was I just kind of share how my my world is really changed dramatically as far as being fully sighted to the not so fully sighted or the low vision world. And I was driving up to Sacramento and all of a sudden outside the city limits, my retinas kind of shut down. And all of a sudden, I couldn’t see the couldn’t see the freeway signs. And so that was my quick entry into vision loss. And that transition really wasn’t, it wasn’t a gentle transition, it was really an abrupt transition. But it took me a while to really absorb and figure out how to deal with it. And even from the point of telling people that I’ve lost my lost a significant amount of my sight. And I still think that was one of the hardest things I had to do. When I first lost my sight is telling, acknowledging that I had a disability. But once I got over, that fear that that, that issue, I was able to start moving forward. It took me a while to embrace using a cane and and once I figured out that it was a great tool to be able to use a cane and navigate safely. It was easy, you know, and it’s pretty, it’s really second nature now. And I think one of the things that has served me well, maybe from a work experience level is prior to being involved in the nonprofit world prior to being involved with Earl balm center prior to being involved with guide dogs was I was in the, in the financial world, and life insurance business, and also the investment, retirement planning business and, and having that expertise of 30 plus years is has been pretty terrific. As far as being able to meet an incredible array of people. It’s all people oriented. My whole work experience has been people oriented and connecting with people and, and building relationships with people. And so that’s really helped me in in entering the new world of low vision. And I want to go ahead, right, well,
Michael Hingson 07:21
I want to get into that. But But I have to ask you a couple questions. First, you said something early on that I’m really concerned about. They’re married, but you still call them young boys? Hmm.
Bob Sonnenberg 07:32
Well, you’re younger than me much younger than me, like, you know, early 30s, mid 30s. So
Michael Hingson 07:41
young boys. Well, that that’s great. I remember them when they were a lot younger. Of course, we’ve been down here now for a while I haven’t seen them. So we’ll we’ve got to work that out. But you know, we we continue the circle of life as it were. So that that is really cool, though. But tell me about your time on the on the rodeo circuit, what did you do?
Bob Sonnenberg 08:05
So not only race, race ponies roll out years. And, you know, I had this vision when I was a kid that I would grow up and have some connection with a four legged animal and a harness, okay, or not a harness, but a halter. Okay, some leather type, you know, like a, a bridle. So I think it’s really important. And I’ve kind of shared this in sometimes in talking with with groups of young kids, and you got to be really clear on what your goals are, what your vision is. And so I have a guide dog, my second guide dog and so I am connected with a four legged animal, not the dog that is not the four legged animal that I envisioned when I was 1012 years old. And I’ve connected with having not a bridle but a harness. So I was there was a missing piece in my vision of when I grew up to be a grown well, I’m still growing up, but
Michael Hingson 09:12
this is this sort of God’s way of saying, Be careful what you wish for.
Bob Sonnenberg 09:16
Yeah, exactly. You can be a little bit more clear, okay, and concise and focused. And but, you know, it’s even to this day, I know that I mentally and mechanically, I could probably go out and easily ride a horse again and also probably even rope again.
Michael Hingson 09:34
I was just gonna ask if you’ve done any ride, you know, not rodeo necessarily, but have you done any writing or anything in the last little while?
Bob Sonnenberg 09:43
Not in the last little while. It’s it’s definitely on my my, my bucket list once again. Somehow, someway get involved in horseback riding again because I love doing it. It’s just it’s wonderful.
Michael Hingson 09:59
It’s been a while since I’ve had that opportunity, we’d love to do it again. There’s nothing like the, the feeling of communicating within and riding a horse and interacting with them. Yeah, last time last time, I think we interacted with a horse was in New York City. And it was Roselle. Actually, um, we were at the, I think, walking by the Plaza Hotel right across from Central Park. And Roselle saw these dogs across the street. At least she thought they were and and somebody somebody had told me that it was the carriage horses for the carriages and all that that, that drive around anyway. I said was hey, you want to go meet them and she was wagging her tail and the closer we got the slower she walked. As they kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. She figured out they’re not dogs. I don’t know about this anymore. Anyway, we went up to one. And I started talking to the guy whose horse it was the horse’s name was Charlie and he said, Well, Charlie isn’t necessarily the most friendly horse so you might be careful. But Charlie and Roselle struck up a relationship and they talked to each other and Charlie was very friendly and sniffed Roselle. Roselle got to sniff Charlie and we stayed there about 10 minutes and Roselle was quite happy and comfortable. She made a new friend.
Bob Sonnenberg 11:22
That’s great. Yeah.
Michael Hingson 11:24
But there’s nothing like riding a horse. I hope you get to do it. Someone I hope we can do it down here sometime soon or else up there.
Bob Sonnenberg 11:32
Yep, yep, it’s definitely on my list of things to do.
Michael Hingson 11:37
So what happened when your retina shut down? You’re on the freeway, how did you deal with that immediately? What did you do a
Bob Sonnenberg 11:44
lot of emotions. You know, unfortunately, I could see I was very familiar with Sacramento and driving into Sacramento and I just kind of I was able to turn off to the roadway safely and, and actually was up there was early in the morning, I went to an all day conference, really not knowing what was going on rather than I couldn’t see very well and went to the conference and made a decision. At the end of the day, probably about five o’clock, it was this saint January of 2004. So it was dark, getting dark, about five o’clock or so. And I didn’t want to call and worry my wife that I I’d be late or whatever. And we had plans to meet in the city that night in San Francisco and there was about a 80 mile drive south to San Francisco and Sacramento. And so I made the decision to get in the car not necessarily the necessarily the best decision I’ve ever made. But I got in the car. And California was kind enough to put in those what I refer was referred to that time. Boy bumps in the freeway. So yeah, that but that’s whatever. Anyhow, I just got in the slow lane and use that as kind of my guideline and safely drove to San Francisco. And that was a last evening I drove a car and I made it successfully. So
Michael Hingson 13:14
safely. I don’t know. But you made it which safely I
Bob Sonnenberg 13:17
made it. Yeah, didn’t hit anything and hurt anybody. And and I arrived. And
Michael Hingson 13:22
so what did you then do what then? What happened? First of all, what? When did you learn what cost you’re?
Bob Sonnenberg 13:30
So it was really interesting. Just happened on a Saturday morning and Monday morning, I made arrangements to come up and see a retinal specialist in actually ironically in Santa Rosa. And I met with her and she gave me the diagnosis that it was myopic degeneration. So similar to macular degeneration, it’s really high, high level nearsightedness. So I just, I don’t have any dark spots, black spots, I can just the visual acuity is just not as sharp as it was and it’s not correctable. So from that perspective, the fact that I don’t have any dark spots, black spots, that’s really account that is a blessing every day. But when I we arrived home, and I sat down with each one of my sons and told them what the diagnosis was and was just, you know, slowly processing it, but I love to share this one story with my oldest son I sat down with him and he said, Dad, you know how I can help you we’ll help you and if you need a ride someplace, give me a ride and but I have a question for you and and the question was, well, God when you when you lose one of your senses, I’ve heard that another one is supposed to get better. I said, Yeah, I’ve heard that too. But, Bob, this just happened two days ago. So what are you asking me? He said, Well, when are you going to get a sense of humor. So he’s much bigger than me. And I just gave him a big hug. But I, I love sharing that because, you know, that’s kind of what it’s all about just looking at things in a different lens and looking at it joyfully, as opposed to what was me. So having that attitude of positivity is really probably really helped me in this journey.
Michael Hingson 15:38
So what was your work at the time?
Bob Sonnenberg 15:41
So at that time, I was working for the triple A organization in Marion County, and our my role and responsibility was really marketing developing selling there. While everyone knows about their travel business, or their property casualty, their auto insurance and homeowners insurance, not a lot of folks knew about their life insurance business, and that was part of my background. So I was embarking on marketing for them the life insurance business in marine County. And so right in my backyard, it was a great, you know, I lived a couple miles away from where I worked. So it was pretty cool. And a triple eight, at the time really didn’t know what to do with somebody that couldn’t see the computer, they had no tools, no preparation for someone that was, couldn’t really see. And they tried a lot of different things to try. And as far as job accommodations for me, and I will never forget the one of the first things that they tried to have me suggested I embrace as far as a position, not in the life insurance business, but in another role, another responsibility within the organization, they said, Bob, we’d like you to answer the phone. And I’m sure my reaction was it was a stunned silence, because it was not something that I really cherish doing. And fortunately, for me, I only lasted in with that responsibility for about two or three hours. And then they, they, they tried to multiple things, and I was able to work and get support, get help from the Department of Rehabilitation, get some job accommodation type tools, magnification tools, and, and I really, I, I didn’t stop working the whole time. And I were, we get a ride there every day to work for one of my either my wife or my kids. And it just, it helped me having that, that work ethic, it helped me having a day, every day something to do something to work at and just kind of it helped me adjust to the sight loss and doing different things. And I you know, not only did things in interacting with people every day at the AAA organization, but also different having different roles there and using the tools and being out there where I could, I had a video magnifier, a big desktop so it just kind of accentuated the fact that hey, this guy has special tools, there’s got to be someone with him and I got a you know, it took me a while to process that and but having that ability to work every day and work at it every day and embrace that connected connectivity with other people every day really helped me transfer and my fear of not having full sight anymore. And I just learned how to adjust and it was a you know, it takes time and it’s kind of maybe even a lifelong thing because you still have maybe for myself and I’m not sure I really haven’t talked a lot about it with other folks that have lost their sight later in life but it’s a transition period and you know the interceptor really have the internal maybe attitude fortitude that you want to keep being successful you still want to be engaged in life and that that’s probably been the one of the big motor freight motivators for me, you know, having been curious being fearless. constantly wanting to move forward. So
Michael Hingson 19:46
What job did you ended up settling on? Or did you did you end up with a sort of a regular job for a while at triple A?
Bob Sonnenberg 19:55
They had, I not only gave handed out maps gave directions to people because I knew that the area that I was living in serving in, I sold the work to the cashier, as a cashier is selling travel equipment within this store, I did inventory, they, they had me doing a little bit of everything and a lot of everything so, but I made some great connections with the people that I worked with. And that’s kind of always been my Hallmark. I mean, as far as you can’t do anything you do in life, I don’t think you can’t do it alone. And so you need to be able to have the ability to work with people and get support from other people. And, and it gave me the opportunity to do that. And really, you know, in hindsight, it really, it was a pretty low stress responsibilities that I had, looking back at it, it was it was definitely something I hadn’t done in my sales, so called sales, production type career. So, you know, it was a learning experience. And I ultimately, when I, when I got learned how to use these new tools, this video magnifier or whatever their technology that might be out there, one of the trainers I will never forget, he said, he told me about people that I should connect with. And I’ll never forget who he was. And when it was and who he told me I should reach out to her. So he was uh, he gave us a training and like, a new piece of equipment to my house. So I could use a video magnifier big desktop video magnifier, my house and you set it up for me and see the same, you know, Bob, you should you should connect with this guy. You may have heard of him. And they said, he said, Sam is Michael Hinkson. And so, being fearless perhaps, and not bashful about reaching out, picking up the phone and calling a stranger. That’s what I did. And that’s how I that’s how I connect with you, Mike and, you know, ultimately connected getting a guide dog, you know, the first time I got was even considering getting a guide dog guide. They took me on a came in interviewed me did a lifestyle assessment. And then they wanted to test my cane skills. Well, this was six months into losing my sight. And I never even touched the cane. So they told me or with guide dogs told me where I was supposed to walk to. And I knew the area and I knew the routine. And I could see well enough to navigate what I thought was safely and not bump into people. So I went on the test walk that guide walked and didn’t bring the cane and that was probably a bad example that I set for the guide dog instructor and but after doing that journey, or after doing that test, I got back to my house and said to the guide dog trainer, I said you know, Jim, I really don’t think I need a guide dog. Okay. And my attitude was that, you know, I wasn’t ready mentally to get a guide dog. But he said, Bob, what you should do just, you know, thing, your life can change. Your attitudes can change. So don’t give up the thought but but wait six months, wait a year, whatever. And that’s what I did. And so slowly I got I figured I had to figure out how to use a cane. So once I once I adopted and embrace using the cane. I practice every day, I was working at triple A every break I had, every lunchtime I had if I had to wait for a ride to get picked up. I’d be out there practicing using the cane until I felt really comfortable doing it. And it just became part of my life. So to answer your question or not my
Michael Hingson 24:12
it does. It does and yeah. So you you eventually got to the point where you decided to to go out and get a guide dog is is your eye condition a degenerative one is it stable? I’m not asking you whether you are stable, but just your eye condition.
Bob Sonnenberg 24:32
Yeah. Okay. Fortunately, my my eye condition has been really really stable. For the last really, almost since the beginning I initially I used to get a lot of on a regular basis shots of evason which were to help ward off perhaps the macular degeneration portion or and really, it got to the point where I I haven’t had a shot for a least a dozen years as far as shots in the eye to to deal with a myopic degeneration. I get it. I get it tested regularly. And I can I know what the difference is as far as if there’s any significant change. Well, let
Michael Hingson 25:18
me ask a nice question. Oh, go ahead. Yeah, no, I
Bob Sonnenberg 25:21
was gonna say one of the things and I, I’ve always had maybe some eye issue, one of my one of my eyes is, has never been had really good functional vision. Growing up, I played a lot of sports. But I really just saw out of one eye and my left eye was always been known as a as a so called lazy eye. So I really had no really has no functional vision, he I can see maybe two fingers, two feet in front of me if I’m lucky. But so and my left eye tends to wander quite a bit. So to keep people that I interact with on a regular basis, and on a daily basis, I wear a patch over my left eye to make the person I’m interacting with feel feel more comfortable.
Michael Hingson 26:11
Interesting way to, to deal with it and to look at it. Well, I’m curious, although the condition is not necessarily one that will change a lot over time. What would you do? Or how would you react? Because you obviously do still depend on eyesight to at least a degree, if not a significant degree? What would would happen to you? What would your attitude be? If you lost the rest of your eyesight?
Bob Sonnenberg 26:40
You know, I think I could, I don’t like to think about it, number one, but if I did, I could make the adjustment. And, you know, and I think having made the adjustment from fully sighted to low vision, that’s helpful to have in my background. But I connect with folks, you know, Michael, like, you know, sight, have a master’s in physics. And so I, I really tried to be inspired by people that have that I think are very accomplished in what they do that have either no site or a site similar to mine. And it gave kind of the service or, for me a role model and inspiration that, you know, it gives maybe some degree of comfort that they’re successful, they’re moving forward with their life. I can do the same thing.
Michael Hingson 27:43
Well, you’ve you and I have you and I have chatted a lot about this. But yeah, let me let me pose this question. So the National Federation of the Blind is an organization of over 50,000 blind people that has been around since 1940. And its second major president, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, wrote an article called a definition of blindness. That was published in the 1960s. At the time, he was the director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, as well as being the president of the Federation. And one of the the premise of the article was that you are blind or you ought to think of yourself as blind if your eyesight diminishes to the point where you have to use alternatives to full eyesight, in order to function. And when you start to have to use large print or magnifiers, or whatever, you should learn the techniques of blindness, and recognize that that you are in fact a blind person that blindness is not a total lack of eyesight. But blindness is a a characteristic that defines well, well defined is probably the wrong word, but a characteristic that you acquire, where you’ve lost enough eyesight that you have to do things differently. What do you think about that?
Bob Sonnenberg 29:10
I think about it probably every day. And and one of the things I’ve realized that it takes me more time to prepare for things to practice. It takes me more time to practice things and I still trying to do everything I did in the sighted world. And one of the things I took up a few years back was that I like like sports and and so I took up tandem bike riding, okay, and know that I do not ride in the front. I’m not the pilot on the bike. But I got a guy that used to used to be a real pilot and he flew off aircraft carrier so I’ve been really fortunate to connect with some amazing people in my life and and having that having an attitude You’d have no fear or not. And no fear, I think is maybe a good way to describe it. But I’ve had a chance to throw out a couple of first pitch, first pitches in baseball games and threw out a first pitch in, in the American League and also the nationally and I know that from an athletic standpoint, I probably wouldn’t have had that experience. If I was fully sighted. There’d be no, no reason for me to get that opportunity. So, you know, I like to just throw strikes, three strikes, and it’s validated. Okay, just so you know, you feel free to do a Google search Bob Sonnenberg first pitch, it’s actually memorialize and, and the announcer who put it up there on YouTube initially is a kid that I, I coach in little league baseball. So it’s amazing how full circle things, things are in life. But I guess our strike,
Michael Hingson 31:04
let’s just point out that there’s this other this other guy named Fauci, who threw out a pitch at the nationals baseball game, and he didn’t throw a strike, you know, so yeah, I mean, you, you are welcome to say that he should keep his day job. Yeah, yeah. But you know, what is exciting?
Bob Sonnenberg 31:23
A lot of things are, you know, that, that I’m able to do a lot of his his mental and mechanics. And so if you keep that in perspective, that’s, that’s how I kind of look at things and know that if I keep the mental and mechanics up, because I’ve done it before, I can do it again, type thing. And I could probably throw a strike with my eyes close to. But isn’t
Michael Hingson 31:49
that what it’s really about? It’s yeah, oh, it’s really all mental. Yeah, it is. Yeah. And oftentimes, we allow ourselves to get distracted, or we allow ourselves to become fearful. And as an I call it blinded by fear, because things happen to us. And we don’t learn how to adjust or as some people would say, roll with the punches, and we just allow ourselves to be overcome by things that aren’t truly relevant, and that we allow ourselves to not adapt and grow when things come along to give us that opportunity.
Bob Sonnenberg 32:34
That’s absolutely true. I think it’s it’s one of the amazing things and that I get to see at their Obama center every day to connect with people that are going through that transition. A really neat thing happened, actually, just this morning, Mike, that maybe about a month ago, I did a presentation to a group of folks, actually in Marin County, via zoom. Folks, it was a vision support group. And they asked me to after the first year, they asked me if I’d like to say a few words in this group. And so I had a good Zoom meeting with him and some of the people in the group I had known from another chapter in my life. And so having that familiarity was really pretty cool. And one of the individuals I met as a result of doing that, he called me afterwards and said, Bob, I’d like to come to their obame Center. And but I, I’ve never and I understand that you take the smart Train, I’ve never taken the smart train. So I met him at the train depot when seven o’clock one morning and we took the smart train together. He came up here, I introduced him to my coffee place and I introduce them to the My driver that I get a ride from at the from the train station to their Obama’s center every day. And he got some instruction here at the Obama center that day. Well, this morning, he’s coming back for another training session. He’s sitting in the lobby here at their obame Center. And he done made the smart train journey all by himself gotten here all by himself, it was just, it was kind of full circle to see that, you know, and he wasn’t afraid of doing that he’d never taken the train before, prior to joining me on the train that one day just 30 days ago. So to see that transformation, pretty phenomenal.
Michael Hingson 34:41
It’s, again, all about mindset. And it’s all about Yeah, the creator of your own mental attitude. And I’ve heard so many stories like that. It’s it’s great to hear so exciting and yeah, hopefully he will continue to grow in growing up myself, I’ve heard a number of stories like that. There is a guy he has since passed, he passed last year. His name is Doug Morris, a longtime friend of mine, through the National Federation of blind I met him when I first went to Iowa to work on the Kurzweil project back in 1976 or early 77. And Dunn was a type type one diabetic, he lost his eyesight, or literally, almost overnight, totally lost his eyesight due to diabetic retinopathy. And he happened to go to the Iowa Commission for the Blind for services. He lived in Iowa, the Commission at the time in the 60s was the lead agency, as much as anything because of the attitude that Dr. Jernigan instilled in the agency, which is the blindness isn’t the problem. It’s our attitude. And that blind people, although we use alternative techniques, blind again, being not just totally blind, but we use alternative techniques to what sighted people do. So Don went to the center before he lost his eyesight. He had worked for Iowa Bell, before the breakup part of the telephone company, he was the number one sales guy, he had sold more than twice what everyone else had sold, when he went to the commission, and then went back to doing the same job. And because of what he learned, and because of his attitude and mindset, he was able to continue to do the job. And oh, by the way, continue to sell like twice as much as anyone else. But then an opportunity came along, where they were looking for someone to teach people to sell. And he applied, and they would not let him apply for the job. They kept saying things like we would rather you be where you are, because you’re you’re bringing so much in forest. And he said, but this is a promotion, and I gotta have the right for a promotion and all that. And they said, but you’re doing so well. So he finally called the National Federation of blind and the Iowa commission got resources from both to help sat down with the bell people and learned that the real issue was that they didn’t think that a blind person could teach didn’t matter what he had done didn’t matter what his track record was, they didn’t think that a blind person could teach, which is, of course, what we run into all the time, people’s perceptions of what blind people can do and not do. So Don quit, he left the Iowa Bell company, and kind of had his customer database with him. Another great connector, by the way, I would say, and for those who are listening and think about it, Bob is one of the greatest connectors that I know, period, you you connect with people and you emphasize that in our time today, but anyway, so don, quit, started his own company. And he I think I may have told this story before, but he told people that he went to his customers and others go off and get your best quote from Iowa Belle, and then come to us. And we will charge you only half of what we save you over a three year period. And I said, How did that work out for you? And he said, Generally, it worked out really well given the prices they charge. I said, but did you ever have a situation where you didn’t save anyone anything? And he said I had one customer who only owed me a nickel for three years worth of work. And that’s all he gave me. He said and he said, I thought that was great. That’s fair. That’s what I that’s what I committed to when he quit when he retired from that job and retired from him because he started the company when he retired and left the company. He said I paid more in taxes the last year than I made as a salesperson working for Iowa Bell. But it’s all unstoppable mindset. And he learned that you’ve learned that. And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Bob Sonnenberg 39:00
It really said, yeah, yeah. And it’s got to come from within you within the individual, you know, you it’s really easy to, to maybe share that story but to be able to demonstrate from a living standpoint, that’s that’s what makes a difference.
Michael Hingson 39:21
And it is all about practicing what you preach and not just talk down. It’s so easy for people to talk about it. But there are many unstoppable mind people, mindset people I know and you prove it every day, you’ve demonstrated what what can be done. And you are great at building relationships. And so you join Guide Dogs for the Blind. When did you join guide dogs
Bob Sonnenberg 39:47
in 2006? And it was really Yeah. But one of the things in joining guide dogs it opened up a whole new chapter Army as far as you know, a bigger world and working in a retail shop and, uh, you know, Mark one solo marketplace at AAA, so because it gave me a chance to. I’ve worked in the development arena. And so my job was connecting with people, which was great. But it also gave me a chance to travel. Not only the greater barrier, but really, ultimately all over the country. And to meet people that supported an organization that dealt with blindness was is pretty empowering. Empowering in so many different levels and such a unique opportunity for many times, and many different groups of people, many different places with people. But traveling independently like that, that’s really helped me having that experience, getting on a plane, getting on a train, getting on a bus, whatever the case may be. And doing it sometimes not doing it alone, sometimes, but also doing it as part of a group sometimes so so. Well, and of course, I made a difference.
Michael Hingson 41:18
And development of for those who don’t know, in the nonprofit world is, is fundraising is helping to acquire the funds to support the organization.
Bob Sonnenberg 41:30
And one of the benefits of not seen when you do that type of work, Michael and and the audience is that you can you can picture what people’s reaction might be when you talk to people about providing friends providing support for organization, you always think I’ve always kind of picture that it’s, it’s mentally, they’re really, they’re thrilled to talk about it. And I know many times they’re very uncomfortable talking about money stuff, but you know, having that background that I get in the insurance business and the investment business, money was a pretty easy skill set to be able to talk about communicate about so I always looked at it as as a great tool to be able to kind of mentally picture that people were, you know, they’d like what they heard from you. Okay, what, but I couldn’t really see their reactions, but that’s what I pictured. So.
Michael Hingson 42:33
So then you worked at Guide Dogs for a while. And eventually, you left? How did you get connected with a robot home.
Bob Sonnenberg 42:45
So I was a guide, I worked for guide dogs for 10 years. And in develop in the development arena. And an opportunity came up with Earl balm, which is just just up the road 30 miles up the road from where I was learning where I was working at guide dogs. And they were looking to maybe formalize their their friend way in their development department. And so they needed someone with development experience and, and having this combination sight loss and development experience it, it was a really natural transition for me and a friend a great opportunity for me to be able to do that. And I’ve been here at the Obama center for five years. And I initially, I oversaw the development and have made some inroads relative to that, but then an opportunity. Three years ago, I had an opportunity to be become the CEO of the organization. So, you know, once again, you know, being fearless, utilizing maybe all the tools, all the stuff that I had experienced prior to losing my sight. To demonstrate it in the world of low vision now is a exciting opportunity, challenging opportunity every day. It’s it’s challenging, but it’s definitely allowed me to the opportunity to develop a more improved and it’s a constant work in progress but improve my skill set my ability to do more things, to try new things and and to be around to be kind of the springboard for people in North Bay here who have lost their sight to come to be part of this organization to see people flourish. You know, to to know that there’s, there’s hope. Give them joy, give them hope. Give them tools, provide the training, provide the community support, to be successful with their life to enjoy their life once again and not dwell on the negativity Last night, so
Michael Hingson 45:01
tell us a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about Erlbaum. What what the center is, how long it’s been around, kind of her vision going forward, because it’s, it has been considered a pretty small agency up in the Santa Rosa area. And you are definitely growing it. You drafted me to be on the board, so I’m prejudiced, but just in looking at it objectively and looking at what you’ve done, but tell us more about the center.
Bob Sonnenberg 45:28
You know, I think it’s, it’s, you know, we we serve four different counties. So we serve Sonoma County, Napa Lake Mendocino counties, and and there’s a tremendous number of people, as far as maybe older adults that have issues with sight loss and, and different degrees. But, but when you so we, we work with, and and get clients through the Department of Rehabilitation Blind Services Group, we get clients, folks with sight loss from the Veterans Administration. And then we get clients from the the community of ophthalmologists here in the in the county that we serve. And so when you lose your sight, it’s it’s a lot and it’s, it’s it’s scary. And we we try and promote ourselves and and as a place where you can maybe transform your life once again, maybe we energize your life once again. But one of the things that is key to the Earl balm Center as a vision rehabilitation organization is we have 1616 employees and incredible passionate folks, staff that that really love helping other people and and love seeing success in other people and Trent that transformation thing. So when you come to their Obama Center, one of the first kind of door openers for folks is that a majority of folks to have some site we may need. So we will go through a what’s known as a low vision clinic process where a trained, licensed, professional optometrist will review analyze someone’s remaining site and perhaps recommend tools that might help and give them hope that they can use some of their remaining site to kind of move on with their life. And so when you as a client, hear that you can come to a place and maybe get some hope, or maybe get some joy back to your life. That’s a great inspiring thing to have out there. It’s a it’s a, you need hope. You need something to look forward to. And and we provide that hope we provide that joy, we provide not only the tools that are relatively available to folks with low vision, but we train people on how to use our tools, whether it be assistive technology, we have assistive technology and services, we have orientation and mobility. And that’s basically not basically but one of the pieces is that how to travel safely with a cane. So we provide incredible training relative to that. And then all types of living experiences. You know, when you can’t see how do you get dressed in the morning? How do you match up your clothes? How do you women, how do you put on your makeup and all of that. So it’s we provide all those tools, and we provide training with all those tools. So that’s what we do every day and incredibly gifted people that do that instruction every day. It’s great to be part of it.
Michael Hingson 49:00
That’s cool. How many Not to put you on the spot. How many blind people work at Earl balm today?
Bob Sonnenberg 49:08
We have our we have one. We have to me being one of that group so that I’ve got the low vision experience. And then we have a lady by the name of Dr. Denise Bansal, who is actually the longest tenure, she’d been here for the organization, 20 years and so we’ve been in business 20 plus years, so and she has no sight whatsoever and just a remarkable individual woman, mother of two and married and incredible, inspirational person. So
Michael Hingson 49:44
that’s cool. And yeah, and hopefully more blind people. If you hear this, we’ll explore and consider possible job opportunities that are obame Because you you certainly as the CEO do hire from time The time, but it’s more important to let people know that the center exists both people who could use the services and also people who might be looking for a job as job opportunities come along.
Bob Sonnenberg 50:12
We definitely, you know, we had one time we had for folks with sight loss. Actually two other totally blind folks that were instructors and they both went on to new different opportunities, but but their talents and their skill set were incredible. And the the potential growth opportunities for their Obama Center. This is the demographics as such, not only here locally, but also in the whole state of California, the populations getting older. And so with older, older adults come help issues, and obviously one of them very well could be sight loss. So the marketplace is is definitely in need of talented, great communicators, great teachers. And really, you know, having me do what I do from, you know, commuting up here, taking the smart train every day, public transportation, you know, just, there’s really we need folks that are willing to inspire others. And that’s kind of what a great way to do it. By demonstrating and using this skill set, folks with sight loss,
Michael Hingson 51:35
role models. Yeah. So I want to turn I want to turn a little bit to something we’ve talked about it, it is something that all of us deal with from time to time. And that’s just the whole concept of accessibility and inclusion. And as you know, I work for accessiBe, which is all about internet inclusion. But we face we all face the same things that that you faced as a fully sighted person and have now learned to view it from a different perspective. And that’s the whole concept of inclusion, and accessibility. How do we get people in general to start to maybe change their views about persons with disabilities, and I don’t know of a better term to use disabilities as what, what we’re all categorized as, although I think that whether that’s right or wrong, we can certainly change the definition of disability, it doesn’t nearly need to be one where we don’t have ability. And so maybe we need a new word. But the reality is, as you’ve pointed out, we all have different gifts. And so you are a person who doesn’t have one particular gift that is the gift of eyesight, you have other gifts that people with eyesight don’t have whoever you are, how do we start to really get people overall to change their view about persons who are different than they,
Bob Sonnenberg 53:11
maybe education. And I pick one word education, and making people feel comfortable and understand. You know, I mean, the the world today is, education is such a big piece of anyone’s success. And in one of the things that I maybe deal with is on an everyday basis is is when you do have a disability, getting comfortable with situations, like one of the things that I always think about is when I go to big gatherings, and I can’t see who who’s they’re different. It takes me a while to, to navigate to feel comfortable. You know, and the more it’s like anything, the more you get in you’re in a position where we do go get involved with different groups, different crowds, you feel more comfortable, and you the more you do it, the it’s like practice. So I try and always look for opportunities like that. And and I get that by traveling by, you know, whether it be the conductors or the clerk at the coffee store, whatever the case may be, it’s just, you know, just having them connected at a individual personal basis, you know, building a relationship with people and it’s it’s tough to do it in and you can really just do it one person at a time, but But you sometimes you get it’s frustrating that you can’t do it. 20 people at
Michael Hingson 54:58
the same time, but Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can’t. Yeah, yeah. But it but it’s true. It is all about education, you know. And for me, I deal with internet access every day. But I also do recognize that words matter. And I think one of my stories that that I think about and something that I didn’t used to think about a lot, but now I do is how you and I are described, people tend to describe us as visually impaired. I think it was Brian Bashan, who we both know who is the CEO of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. At least, this is where I first heard the concept of, we’re not visually impaired because we don’t necessarily look different simply because we’re blind. We’re not less looking, if you will, because we’re blind. It’s more appropriate to say vision impaired. And although I think I got lots of vision, I don’t have eyesight, but I’ll accept that eyesight and vision are somewhat synonymous. But I think it’s appropriate to discuss vision impairment, but not visually impaired because we’re not visually impaired simply because we go blind or lose our eyesight, to some degree. agree with that. Yep. And it is a, it is something that that we face. And of course, people talk about visually impaired, and that is a negative cue for people in a lot of ways, and it is part of what we need to change. And the the concept of vision impairment. Boy, if I look at a lot of people in Washington, DC today, who have fully functional eyesight from a vision standpoint, they’re incredibly impaired, you know. And it is an issue, but, but the fact is that we are and and I think it’s better to look at us as persons with a vision impairment. And I and I also try to educate people, as we’ve discussed about blind, which isn’t necessarily totally blind. And but I’ve heard educators, I’ve literally been in a room with an educator who talked about two students, one who was totally blind, and another one who was partially blind. And they said, the partially blind one can still reprint and gets to reprint the totally blind, one has to read Braille. And look at the difference in what the terminology is. It’s that kind of subtle terminology that plagues us everywhere we go, because the reality is that the person who is partially blind and uses large print and magnifiers will never read at the speed of a totally blind student who grows up learning Braille and learning it well. And I’m sure you can attest to it, although you’re not a braille reader, but you can attest to how much of a challenge it is to read printed material.
Bob Sonnenberg 58:03
Yeah, absolutely. And I marvel at people they read Braille, it was when I for one of the great stories that that it’s a guide dogs related story, but I had never, when I first got my first guide dog in 2006, I had never been around two people or three people that had word, either blind, totally blind, or low vision, and to be in a group surrounded for 30 days or so, with 22 dozen people that had different levels of sight loss. That was the most incredibly educational experience that I ever had, have had. Because I got to, you know, like you talked about, understand I get to be educated that, you know, the CVC how people other people navigated with sight loss and have that real world experience was, you know, it’s something that you never forget, it’s, it’s really made all the difference to have that, that groundwork, that experience and so that kind of having that same community experience, like I had that during that getting that first guide dog is really kind of what rural bomb center does it we provide a safe community where people can experience sight loss and make that get the first toe in the water so to speak. That you know, you can do this. It’s it’s not the worst thing in the world. You’re, you’re living breathing and live in life. So you only get to do this live thing once. You may as well have fun doing it. You may as well enjoy it and really easy to say but it takes work like it’s like life, I mean, you got to put one foot in front of the other constantly so
Michael Hingson 1:00:05
and you move forward if you learn to move forward. So what is in summary, we’ve been doing this a while, and I really appreciate it. I know you’ve got things to do. But in summary, what would you say to people who come to you and say, I’m losing eyesight? Or I’m facing something different in my life? I can’t do it. How would you respond to that sort of thing? How would you advise people to go
Bob Sonnenberg 1:00:30
look for people that will inspire you? You know, I’ve had in the last couple of months I’ve had, there’s a guy that I knew he’s been dealing with sight loss for 10 years as a result from glaucoma, and has been very, very reclusive. And he is a guy that I knew 20 years ago, father of a son, my kids age, and he was a, we just connected and I probably have spent more time with him in the last month than I had 20 years prior to that. But if given him some hope, and and that, you know, he, he doesn’t have to do this step alone. There are solutions, there are answers. There’s opportunities out there. So, you know, embrace the opportunities, embrace, embrace sight loss, because without embracing it, you’re not going to move forward, you’re not going to be unstoppable. You you’re going to be you’re just going to go back in your shirt, and a shell to sort of speak and not to that’s bad for some people. That’s what they want. But you know, I think it’s, it’s, I’ve been really blessed to have a constant move forward attitude.
Michael Hingson 1:01:52
And that is a great way to summarize it all because it’s made you unstoppable in a lot of different ways. And we we all find challenges, but we can move forward and I’m really glad and blessed to know you and to hear your story again today. And I really think that you epitomize what we talked about when we talk about unstoppable
Bob Sonnenberg 1:02:16
Yeah, well thank you again for you know, Michael for for doing what you do and and thank you for being there the frame that you are appreciate it.
Michael Hingson 1:02:26
Well thank you in return for the same thing. So if people want to reach out to you and meet you, or they want to learn about Earl balm, and want to get your advice in words of wisdom, how do they do that?
Bob Sonnenberg 1:02:39
You know, it’s really easy. We’re happy to say I have a website Earlebaum. And that’s E A R L E B A U M .org. Santa Rosa, California. We’re here to help and we’d love to help people move forward with their life.
Michael Hingson 1:02:58
Well, I hope people will reach out and you have certainly been an inspiration and you have certainly given us a lot of advice and a lot to think about. And you are unstoppable and I know I use that word a lot but that’s what the podcast is about and right ourselves. So thank you Bob for for being with us. My pleasure. If people want to learn more about unstoppable mindset if you just discovered us we are available wherever Podcasts can be reached. You can also search on www.MichaelHingson.com/podcast and Michael Hingson is M I C H A E L H I N G S O N so MichaelHingson.com/podcast. You can also email me if you’d like to reach out we love to hear from people. I’ve gotten requests from people who have said I know someone who should be on your podcast or I like what I hear or I’d like to see you do more of this and we love input. You can email me at Michaelhi M I C H A E L H I at accessiBe A C C S S I B E.com. Michaelhi@accessibe.com and we did mention it but are Earle Baum an accessiBe user and we thank you for that, Bob.
Bob Sonnenberg 1:04:17
You bet. Our pleasure.
Michael Hingson 1:04:20
Well, everyone, athanks for dropping by. We hope that you’ll tune in again next week for another unstoppable mindset podcast. And in the meanwhile, have a good week and stay blessed and stay positive and unstoppable.
Bob Sonnenberg 1:04:34
Thank you, Michael.
Michael Hingson 1:04:36
Thank you Bob.
Michael Hingson 1:04:44
You have been listening to the Unstoppable Mindset podcast. Thanks for dropping by. I hope that you’ll join us again next week, and in future weeks for upcoming episodes. To subscribe to our podcast and to learn about upcoming episodes, please visit www dot Michael hingson.com slash podcast. Michael Hingson is spelled m i c h a e l h i n g s o n. While you’re on the site., please use the form there to recommend people who we ought to interview in upcoming editions of the show. And also, we ask you and urge you to invite your friends to join us in the future. If you know of any one or any organization needing a speaker for an event, please email me at speaker at Michael hingson.com. I appreciate it very much. To learn more about the concept of blinded by fear, please visit www dot Michael hingson.com forward slash blinded by fear and while you’re there, feel free to pick up a copy of my free eBook entitled blinded by fear. The unstoppable mindset podcast is provided by access cast an initiative of accessiBe and is sponsored by accessiBe. Please visit www.accessibe.com. accessiBe is spelled a c c e s s i b e. There you can learn all about how you can make your website inclusive for all persons with disabilities and how you can help make the internet fully inclusive by 2025. Thanks again for listening. Please come back and visit us again next week.