Lex Gillette Finds Time to Give Back

June 03, 2009, 12:18 p.m. (ET)

SAN DIEGO, Calif.--In 1992, Lex Gillette's world began to get fuzzy.

The 8-year-old boy - who was born with a visual impairment - went through a series of surgeries to restore his vision. After each procedure, for a short window of time, he could see clearly.

And then, within weeks, everything would be fuzzy again.

Finally, doctors told Gillette's family there was nothing more to do; he'd eventually lose his sight. His mother was resolute: "We have to move on and find ways to work around this," she told her son.

And that's just what they did.

Gillette, now 24, has navigated his challenge with grit and grace. The two-time Paralympic silver medalist, who trains full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, is committed to giving back.

Gillette will be working with the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) for its San Diego Dining in the Dark event Thursday at the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown.

The fundraiser's 250 attendees will dine in a pitch-black room, and be served by a team of visually impaired waiters and waitresses, including Gillette. The contractors working with the FFB will go to great lengths - covering door jams, Exit signs, and even the lights on audio/visual equipment - to black out the space, simulating for diners what it must be like to be blind or visually impaired.

Gillette worked his first Dining in the Dark event in his hometown, Raleigh, N.C. Servers - who have differing degrees of visual impairment - are trained the day before and the day of the event. Tables are set up in a grid, and velvet ropes create boundaries and walkways for the servers, who learn the layout and use carts to deliver food and drinks to their tables.

Attendees respond differently to the disarming darkness - some embrace the sensation, and others have to leave the room. The noise level becomes a bit louder, the results of a heightened auditory sensation or people more animatedly talking, organizers said.

"It's dark to the point where you couldn't see your hand if you waved it in front of your face," Gillette said. "It's a pretty cool concept."

And, a good cause, Gillette said.

His first Dining in the Dark event in Raleigh benefited a local ophthalmology clinic; the San Diego event will raise funds for the FFB, which funds research for preventions, treatments and cures for people living with a variety of visual impairments.

Marilyn McPoland, the event coordinator for the foundation's San Diego event, was wowed by the first Dining in the Dark fundraiser she attended. In the pitch black room, pouring a glass of water and lifting a forkful of food to your mouth ("You think you know where your mouth is ..." she said) become labored tasks.

"The everyday things you take for granted, some people are challenged by," McPoland said. "Some of them face difficulties with simple things - and they still have a 'nothing-is-going-to-stop-me' attitude."

The spirit of determination, and his raw athletic ability, is what has helped Gillette persevere. During high school, he competed in wrestling for two years, before he was recruited to the track and field team. With minor modifications (he uses a guide runner who gives him audible signals in track and field), he's been able to compete - and win.

Fresh out of high school, he qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team and traveled to Athens in 2004. He won a silver medal in the long jump. Last year, in Beijing, he repeated his performance, taking home the silver medal in long jump, simultaneously setting the U.S. records in long and triple jump.

Gillette said he's happy to work the Dining in the Dark events benefiting the FFB, to help fundraise for prevention of and treatment for visual impairment - but given the choice, he's not sure he'd take advantage of a miracle cure.

"I'm happy," Gillette said. "I can't think of too many things that would make me happier if I had 20/20 [vision] again."

One thing will make him happy, though: winning a gold medal in London in 2012.

"Third time's a charm," he said.

For more information on the San Diego Dining in the Dark event, visit http://www.blindness.org/

Joseph Peña is a lifestyle editor for San Diego News Network.