Joseph Burton knows what a significant difference it can make in someone’s life when they have the support and encouragement they need. That’s because he spent the first 15 years of his life struggling to find the kind of love and guidance so many young people have. And it’s his own experience that ultimately motivated him to co-found the Hearts for Sight (HFS) Foundation in 2016, which he serves as president.
By the time he was five years old, Joseph and his siblings could no longer live with his mother, who was in and out of jail. After being cared for by their grandmother for a few years, Joseph and two of his six siblings were placed in the foster care system. He lived in a variety of group homes – where he struggled with separation anxiety and depression, for which he was prescribed various medications. Eventually, a staff member who had formed an emotional bond with Joseph took him into his own home as a foster child, where Joseph lived for about two and a half years, starting when he was 16.
“Monroe Billingsley was an African American man and I always felt it was a blessing that he came into my life,” Joseph says. “As a young Black youth myself, it was incredibly hard finding a foster home, but Monroe taught me what unconditional love is.”
Setting goals from an early age
Even before finding a loving home, Joseph knew he wanted to do more with his life than his early circumstances allowed. When he was 13, at one group home where he received therapy, which he found helpful, his therapist asked, “What do you want from your life, Joseph?”
He didn’t hesitate to respond. “I was very specific,” Joseph says. “I wanted to get off my medication because I was doped up to the point where my personality was changing. I was a very obese kid, which was crazy because I was incredibly athletic; my body couldn’t adjust to the medication. I also wanted to graduate from high school and I didn’t want to end up like my mother.”
Joseph achieved all those goals – and more. He lost 60 pounds between sophomore and junior year, just by being active with his friends.
But after graduation, he found himself sliding into some bad habits. He was working toward an associate’s degree at a community college, but spent most of his time partying with friends. He gained weight again and was academically disqualified from college. Joseph was also losing his vision, after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 16.
“They’d told me I’d be blind someday, but I realized there was so much more I could do to improve myself,” Joseph says.
That’s when he got back on track, starting an exercise regimen that ultimately helped him lose 100 pounds. He also attended the Braille Institute in San Diego for about 18 months, so he could gain the skills he needed to live independently. He is grateful for the experience he had there – but he also discovered there was something most blindness organizations weren’t offering: health and wellness programs.
A health and wellness program is born
“Individuals who are visually impaired should be able to learn what it means to have a balanced diet and what it means to exercise,” Joseph explains. “On top of that, how do they navigate these spaces with sighted individuals who don’t understand their needs?”
Joseph wanted to meet the need, and he wanted to do so in a way that would be affordable. And that’s when the idea for the nonprofit organization, Hearts for Sight, was born.
Working hard to bring dreams to life
At the time, Joseph was about 25 years old. He’d re-enrolled in school and went on to earn multiple degrees, culminating in a Masters in Social Welfare from UCLA in 2021. Even while he was launching HFS, he was developing all the skills necessary to provide the services he knew were in such great need – and the reputation to help HFS be recognized as an organization worth supporting.
Today, HFS offers a wide range of health and wellness programs, including monthly outdoor recreation activities that take people who are blind or low vision to nature areas around Los Angeles County, where HFS is based. He also received funding this year to take people to Catalina for fishing and camping.
“I call these eco-therapeutic alleys,” Joseph says. “These outings give the visually impaired community a chance to be connected with nature.”
When COVID started, HFS launched regular online adaptive fitness programs people can do at home with a trained instructor. HFS also provides therapy services thanks to the credentials Joseph and some of his colleagues have earned.
“What makes our individual therapy program so unique is that it’s facilitated by visually impaired people for visually impaired,” he explains. “This gives us a great understanding of what they’re going through.”
In addition, HFS offers nutrition counseling. Ultimately, Joseph’s dream is to establish a wellness center for people who are blind or low vision that will incorporate all of these components.
“I still have a tremendous amount of vision, even though I am losing it over time,” Joseph says. “I’ve come to recognize that when I don’t maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy relationships, the stress can cause my sight to deteriorate. The progression is inevitable, but I try to exercise every day and eat the best I can to slow that progression.”
He’s passionate about the services HFS provides, knowing first-hand the kind of difference they can make.
“People should be able to go to a fitness center or a grocery store or a biking trail without barriers,” Joseph says. “We should all be afforded the same opportunities as anyone with sight, and I want the general public to understand this – because we rely on the support of people who care and are interested in learning about the challenges and barriers for people with vision loss.”
Visit the Hearts for Sight Foundation to learn more about the programs and services offered.