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 A light in the darkness: Despite failing sight, counselor helps homeless find hope

Posted: October 11, 2016 – 8:43pm

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PHOTOS BY LAUREN KOSKI / AMARILLO GLOBE-NEWS After struggling to find a counseling position due to his failing eyesight, Dan William Miller has made the most of an opportunity through Faith City Ministries.

 

By Angie Stovall

For Amarillo Globe-News

Dan William Miller celebrated his 48th birthday on Sept. 25. For 34 of those years, he watched his birthday come and go. But for the last 14 years, he has been unable to do that.

The visual clarity that allowed him to enjoy the annual milestone is gone.

Instead, he is learning to adjust to the rapid loss of his vision from a rare eye disease, cone-rod dystrophy.

Miller first started noticing a problem when he was 34. Everything seemed to be getting darker, and when an object moved out of his direct line of sight — such as a passing car — it would just disappear, he remembers.

“I can’t see outside now because the light is too intense,” he said. “Inside, I can sometimes see shadows.”

The condition is progressive. Soon, he might not be able to see anything at all. Typically, as cone-rod dystrophy progresses, a person first loses color vision. Then comes night blindness and a loss of peripheral vision.

But he isn’t letting his disorder keep him from working or moving forward.

As a licensed professional counselor working at Faith City Ministries, he is using his experience to teach members of Amarillo’s homeless population that life’s challenges are “opportunities” to excel, not reasons to fail.

There’s no doubt that Miller’s circumstances are difficult. Faith City Ministries was the only agency that would give him a chance when he interviewed for a counseling internship five years ago.

He said the other organizations where he applied didn’t think a blind person could be a counselor. New Hope Counseling supervisor Wib Newton seemed to be able to look beyond his visual impairment and see his potential when others wouldn’t.

In the five years he’s been with Faith City, Miller has earned his LPC credential. And how do Miller’s clients react to him today?

“They love me,” he said.

In part, his blindness has helped him create rapport with his clients, he said, because they don’t feel like someone is “looking at them and judging them” while talking about their lives.

Victims of sexual abuse, in particular, seem to be able to connect with Miller more easily. Many sexual abuse victims can feel “broken,” and think that no one will want them, he said. Abuse of some kind is a common issue for many of the homeless people Miller counsels. Many times he hears them say that they feel like “damaged goods.”

Male and female clients alike go through many tissues during counseling sessions. Most of them feel “really low down” when he first meets with them, said Miller.

The stigma that comes with alcoholism and homelessness can create a barrier for many of his clients. Miller said he sees chemical abuse being used often as a coping device, a choice some clients make to cover up root issues.

His clients also include people suffering from mental illness, and some who have served in the military. Miller said he can relate to the veterans. Many came out of the service with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I help them peel back the layers,” he said, “I help them process.”

Being a counselor wasn’t his first career choice. He worked as a correctional officer for a couple of years, and then as a paramedic before a back injury made that impossible. He worked at a small newspaper, and then in information technology. When he decided to go back to school, IT work supported him.

Then the cone rod dystrophy surfaced. Deteriorating eyesight forced Miller to reinvent himself. He switched his major from IT technology to psychology. Now he holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ashford University and a master’s degree in professional counseling from Liberty University, and he’s working on a doctorate in psychology from California Southern University. He manages the reading with audio books.

Miller wants to continue to reach people and give them a fresh start. Creating a new identity is an important part of the process.

Faith City’s approach is one of interjecting God into the programs and services. Miller sees a shift in thinking when he tells those he counsels that they are a child of God. It’s at this point, he said, they can look in the mirror and really begin to like the person looking back.

Faith City provides a residential program for single women with children with the goals of teaching basic life skills, providing case management and assisting in securing housing and independence.

The Hope for Men and Hope for Women programs focus on classes, groups and counseling to help participants acquire effective coping skills and learn about personal boundaries, he said.

Faith City also feeds the hungry, regardless of program participation and provides for other basic needs such as clothing, hygiene packs and showers for those who live on the streets. During the holidays, the organization gives away jackets, backpacks and blankets to those in need.

Miller makes it clear that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t be productive. He uses himself as an example, and says that he works and pays taxes. He said he is doing his part. And he does his part with dark glasses and a white cane. He goes without shoes, regardless of the weather, to help maintain his balance.

When he received his diagnosis, Miller was depressed. With a family to care for, he couldn’t just check out. He had no other option than to keep going.

He’s been married to Elizabeth Shedd Miller for 22 years. They have two children, Jacob, 22 and Sarah, 17. Jacob, a college student, and Sarah, an aspiring artist and college student, have chronic medical challenges as well. Miller said caring for his children and their special concerns has likely helped make him a stronger counselor.

Since he was given a chance to help others five years ago, Miller seems to be living the same message that he’s eager to share with those who want help: “Believe in your God-given potential instead of listening to others.”