Eighteen tables of sunglass-wearing University of Richmond students, staff, alumni and community members ate by candlelight tonight at Delta Gamma sorority's first Dinner in the Dark.
The dinner aimed to educate guests about blindness by offering a firsthand experience of what it's like to have a visual impairment. The Jepson Alumni Center room was dark except for eight mandatory emergency exit lights and one candle on each table to guide the University Catering servers. Guests also received sunglasses to further impair their sight.
"It opened my eyes to the issues of blind people," senior Natalie Franczyk said, noting the irony of her statement. "I thought it was a great idea."
After putting on their sunglasses, guests were led into the banquet room by Delta Gamma guides dressed in black, while holding onto the shoulder of the person in front of them. Dining on whole-wheat penne with roasted vegetables or chicken with mushroom sauce, roasted potatoes and green beans, guests noted the heightening of their other senses while experimenting with different levels of visual impairment.
Franczyk and senior Mary Catherine Searson said they tied their napkins around their eyes as blindfolds.
Senior Behnaz Varamini, who proposed and co-organized the dinner, tried to eat with her eyes closed. She said she had been practicing but that it was harder than she thought because she kept missing her mouth. Franczyk and Searson said they felt frustrated at times, which illuminated the daily challenges for people with visual impairments.
"I don't know how people do it," Varamini said.
Dr. Tony Sakowski, the founder of the Virginia Eye Institute and a Richmond alumnus, spoke after dinner about the various kinds and causes of blindness. Varamini also introduced the Dawn Peifer Award that Delta Gamma plans to present annually to people like Peifer, a mother who started the Virginia Association for Parents with Children with Visual Impairments. Peifer, whose daughter Kimmy is blind, was not present to receive the award because she had the flu.
Varamini wanted to start the dinner at Richmond after reading about the Dining in the Dark events begun in Europe and held in cities throughout the United States by the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB). She and senior April Junta have been organizing the dinner since July, but the idea took shape last semester.
"Without question, this event is 100 percent the brainchild of Behnaz and April," Delta Gamma chapter president Nelle Seymour wrote in an e-mail. "We had a meeting with Alison Bartel Keller [associate director of student activities] last semester in which she strongly recommended that we revamp our weeklong fundraiser 'AnchorSplash' so as to refocus it in a way that would further educate the UR community about our national philanthropy, Service for Sight — an organization that works to help raise money for the blind and visually impaired."
The logistics of the event had to be reworked many times during the months of planning, Junta said. For example, they had originally wanted to use blindfolds, but the national Delta Gamma bylaws forbid events with blindfolds. The two biggest obstacles were getting every detail — even down to what kind of potatoes to serve — approved by the national DG administrators, and advertising the event, Varamini said.
Junta was in charge of stimulating student interest in the dinner. Advertising appeared on fliers, Facebook, SpiderBytes, a blog and at tables in the Tyler Haynes Commons building. She said they hadn't planned on having many student tables, but the opposite occurred. Student organizations such as WCGA even bought full tables.
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In addition to dinner fees from the 144 diners who signed up, donations were also received from parents of Delta Gamma members and alumni and other community members who could not attend. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds will go to FFB, and the rest will be sent to the national Delta Gamma philanthropic fund.
Delta Gamma plans to hold the event annually to raise money and awareness for Service for Sight, Junta said. Varamini said she was thrilled about the high student participation but that the biggest improvement for future years would be to make the room darker.
"I was really excited to bring the idea [to Richmond] and see what people could do with it in future years," Varamini said.
With the national Delta Gamma president even in attendance, Seymour wrote that the dinner might become a national tradition for all chapters across the country.
Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at firstname.lastname@example.org
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