2012-11-16 / Community

Amber Mooney helps others like her

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Amber Mooney Amber Mooney When South Portland resident Amber Mooney returned home from a two-year volunteer trip to Nicaragua in 2010, she contacted the Iris Network to help with her deteriorating vision. She didn’t know the small step she took would lead her to a career to help others in similar situations.

Mooney was diagnosed with Wolfram syndrome when she was a teenager. The rare and little-known genetic condition causes diabetes, but the more serious symptom is a slow, progressive loss of sight.

“When I came home (from Nicaragua), I said, I can’t really do this on my own any more,” Mooney said.

So she called the Iris Network, and a vision rehabilitation therapist helped her make a few adjustments. Now, Mooney is on a career path to that same position.

Last month, Mooney accepted a new job with the Iris Network as a community connections coordinator. Her new job involves setting up community-based programs for visually impaired people around the state. As an example, Mooney said, she would like to start a monthly walking group for the blind and visually impaired as a fun activity in the Bangor or Auburn areas.

This January, Mooney will start working toward her master’s degree in visual rehabilitation therapy. She will continue to work with the Iris Network while taking courses online through the University of Massachusetts-Boston. The Iris Network will fund the cost of the program and, after Mooney receives her degree, she will be able to move up to a full-time position with the company as a vision rehabilitation therapist.

Mooney pointed to her stove to explain how the vision rehabilitation therapist helped her, and how she hopes to help in the future: various white slashes mark certain points on the oven’s temperature control so Mooney doesn’t have to lean over the stove to see the numbers.

Mooney, 27, graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She spent a year in college with a host family in northern Spain. Then, after graduation, in 2008, she traveled to Nicaragua to volunteer at a library in Managua with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

The library was not, however, like most in the U.S. It was a tiny space, packed with children who came in the mornings and afternoons to do their homework because the schools couldn’t provide books.

Mooney said she was constantly doing five things at once, and “It was a zoo.” But despite the hectic atmosphere, she enjoyed the experience and would like to return to Managua sometime in the future.

Still, there were challenges in Nicaragua for Mooney that went far beyond the jet lag, diet adjustment or homesickness most foreigners commonly experience in a new country. One of those challenges was just getting around the city. Mooney has never been able to drive herself, and in Maine she relied on a supportive network of family and friends for help.

That wasn’t an option in Nicaragua, but Mooney still found a silver lining with the less-than-ideal public transportation.

“As awful and horrendous as the public transportation is, it’s dilapidated and the buses are falling apart, but they come a lot, so it was easy to get around by myself,” Mooney said.

Since she’s come home, Mooney has continued to follow her interest in Spanish and in library work. She is on the city’s library advisory board that meets once a month, and has also volunteered as an interpreter at the Portland Community Free Clinic.

Mooney said not enough is known about Wolfram syndrome to start thinking about a cure at this point — “They’re just trying to figure out what it does,” she said — but she is happy to have a position with a company that helps people with similar problems and understands the challenges she faces.

“Everyone’s got their own thing to deal with. We all just get along as we can and help each other out,” she said.

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