As reported by The Hartford Courant, July 24, 2006.

Despite Disability, Volunteer Persists

By Kira Goldenberg

WEST HARTFORD -- Age and blindness does not stop Estelle Davis from helping others.

The 89-year-old volunteers Monday mornings at the University of Connecticut Health Center, putting together packets of health information for seniors and women.

Davis prepares dozens of these folders on each visit, despite being legally blind from macular degeneration. Center staff lay out material on Davis' desk so she can fill the folders, manager Milissa Woodward said.

"If I forget a piece of paper, she knows right away," Woodward said. "She is just so reliable, just has positive energy, is always in a good mood, and she's a perfectionist. When I give her a task to do, I know it will get done right away."

Davis has volunteered at the center for years. In May, she received her pin for having donated 3,000 hours of work.

At the hospital's call center, Davis puts together informational packets and Vials of Life, containers of medical information for seniors to keep on their refrigerator to inform emergency workers of their health status.

"I think I would go mad if I couldn't go down to the hospital and do something," Davis said.

On the mornings she volunteers, Davis catches a ride to the hospital from her home at Chatfield, a senior living community behind Corbin's Corner. Everyone else in the van is going to medical appointments, she said.

She and her husband, Albert, began volunteering at the center shortly after their 1987 move from New Jersey to Avon to be with their daughter, Avon High School guidance counselor Diane Lieberfarb and her family.

Before the move, he was a wine and spirits merchant; she was the volunteer director at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., for 20 years.

In fact, Davis is a lifelong volunteer. She met Albert when both were students at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. Davis was volunteering in the boys' health office to avoid swim class.

Each brought someone else to their senior prom in 1936. But "somehow or other," Davis recalled, "We danced the whole night together."

They married on Jan. 1, 1939. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army, serving about four years during World War II.

When her sight worsened in both eyes 10 years ago, Davis said, her husband kept her going. He died in September 2003, a month shy of their 65th anniversary.

Noreen Washburn, then the executive director at Chatfield, the senior living community where the couple lived, recalled many conversations with a grieving Davis.

"I remember when Al died - I went to see her, and we sat and cried," said Washburn, who relocated in April to a job at The Gables in Farmington. "She did her grieving, and I think to this day grieves. But she pulled herself up and resumed her volunteering."

"I think a person has to have a purpose in getting up in the morning," Davis said. "And that's my attitude."

When Davis speaks, she looks for a moment at whomever she is addressing, and then her eyes slide away, focusing at a spot over the person's shoulder. Since macular degeneration robbed her of her central vision, peripheral vision is the only way she can see.

Macular degeneration is an age-related condition in which the macula, the part of the retina involved in central vision, deteriorates. This can cause blurred central vision or spots of blindness called scotomas.

About 30 percent of people over age 75 show some evidence of macular degeneration, according to Dr. William Ehlers, an ophthalmologist at the UConn Health Center. Most have dry macular degeneration, which progresses slowly. Davis has the wet version, in which new, but faulty blood vessels grow in the eye and leak, causing the retina to swell.

"I make out a form, but I can't give you details," Davis said. She recognizes people by their shape, gait, and voice," Davis said. "I can't look in the mirror and see what I look like."