SALT LAKE CITY — Old Man Winter's had the day in his grip, but it was spring and Easter eggs and high-fives all over the place for Monica Hiett and George Youngdell.
The longtime friends who are a new couple and plan to be together forever after they marry in the LDS temple in Bountiful in three weeks couldn't imagine themselves any happier than they were Saturday afternoon after collecting a record 16 Easter eggs at an egg hunt for blind and visually impaired people.
With a sense of mission that beagles might display as they're set on the trail of a fox, the participants turned their attention to the beeping of the wily electronic egg, which had been strategically placed in the west Salt Lake environs of the state Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired by a warren of bunnies/Qwest Pioneers volunteer staff. Almost as fast as you can say "hard-boiled egg," the game was got.
"We even found two of them in the branches of a tree," Youngdell, 39, said. It was a highlight moment the couple marked with a high-five and celebrated again indoors a little while later with hot dogs and chips.
"I've never had this much fun," the 38-year-old Hiett said, adding that she hadn't let being a rookie egger slow her down. "We're getting married in a couple weeks, and I think I'm more excited about this."
If her soon-betrothed took any offense to the comment, it didn't dampen the couple's post-hunt glow.
"Sighted people who lose their keys and find them kind of know what we're talking about," Hiett said. "But when you can't see to even look, finding something just by hearing it is really a big thrill. Amazing. Way good."
Just getting out of the house at all is a huge accomplishment, especially for people who lose their vision suddenly, said Leslie Gertsch, a veteran "cane traveler" and volunteer executive director the Utah Council of the Blind.
"It can be terrifying," she said, recounting the story of a man who recently and suddenly lost his vision who said he didn't even dare stand up for weeks afterward. "Losing your vision feels like losing yourself because seeing is how most people get through their lives. It's like finding yourself stranded and realizing you're going to feel stranded a lot."
That doesn't mean that blind people are lost, said Teresa Lobato, a directory assistance trainer for more than 30 years at Qwest and family volunteer coordinator.
"Volunteering is the best way I know of doing what you can to help," said Lobato, whose daughter was the day's official Easter Bunny and whose 4-year-old grandson was on hand to oversee, at least every once in a while, that no one was being shorted in the hubbub of hunters trading in their beeper eggs for candy eggs.
"It's just being committed to the community you live in," Lobato said. "If there's a community service project, we're probably involved in it somehow," adding that the Pioneers network that started with 14 civic-minded Mountain Bell retirees now numbers 680,000 in the United States and Canada.
People can pretend to know what it's like to be blind, as some did Saturday by donning blindfolds, "but it's completely different when you know there's no blindfold to take off," Cindi Vega, president of the Council of the Blind, said as the last of the hunters turned in their eggs.
"We try to reach out every way we can think of to let people know that there are others out there with a listening ear who know exactly what they're going through," she said. "We can't reach everyone, but we try, and I worry all the time about people who feel put in the margins by the loss of sight and then stay there."
It takes a lot of negotiating just to get through a day, Vega and other participants said in describing what they do when they're not hunting eggs.
"There is a gentleman who broke his neck recently on a low-hanging tree branch," Gertsch said. "There's no cane that's going to warn you about something like that."
There are warnings about more routine obstacles the blind face that the sighted could provide, they said.
"If someone looks like they're lost, whether they can see or not, ask them if they need help," said Alyssia Christensen, a blind high school senior heading to Salt Lake Community College this fall. "If they're visually impaired, don't grab or touch them, and speak normally. And let someone getting on the bus know where you're sitting, for example. No one really likes sitting down on a stranger's lap."
Christensen said she spent years in her bedroom, "seriously depressed and scared to death. Now I can't think of many places I wouldn't go or much I won't try. It's just a matter of giving more trust to yourself and to more people, and we would probably all be better off if we tried more of that."