MU residential life welcomes its first visually impaired staff member

Monday, October 15, 2007 | 6:54 p.m. CDT; updated 5:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Jim Pelfrey, a new hall coordinator of Hudson Hall at MU, goes through paperwork while his Seeing Eye dog, Opal, rests below his feet on Oct. 8. “I really wanted to work at a university for some time,” Pelfrey says.

COLUMBIA — As Jim Pelfrey and his Seeing Eye dog, Opal, walked down the hall, Opal’s eyes danced back and forth between her owner and their destination. Every few seconds Pelfrey would tell Opal, “Home,” and she led him closer to his door. When Opal stopped, Pelfrey touched the handle and then patted her on the head.

“Good girl,” he said.

Pelfrey and Opal were home.

Pelfrey, who was born blind, now calls MU’s Hudson Hall home after taking over as residence hall coordinator Sept. 24. As the first blind person hired by MU’s department of residential life, he’s looking to use his experience to make an impact.

“The reality is I am going to stand out more,” Pelfrey said, “and I am going to embrace that.”

Fan of sports, music

Growing up, Pelfrey never let his disability get in the way of being a kid. He has always been a sports fan, and when he was in junior high school, he was a member of the wrestling team.

Pelfrey, who looked up to athletes like Pete Rose, was even at the game when Rose reached 3,000 hits.

“It was wonderful because the crowd was so into it. I didn’t feel like I needed to see it to appreciate it,” Pelfrey said. “I think as a blind person I revered him because he did not have a lot of ability, but he persevered. So he really was a hero growing up.”

Pelfrey was also a self-proclaimed “audio geek.” He got his first stereo system when he was 9, and when he was 17, he got his first really “killer” system. To this day, Pelfrey still takes pride in his music and sound system. He enjoys blues and jazz.

Pelfrey was not the only one in his family that was born blind. His older sister, Linda, was born with virtually the same eye condition. Separated by only two years, they went through many of the same experiences. Pelfrey said oftentimes they have to remind others that they are still very different.

“Just because we are brother and sister and blind it does not mean that we are the same. We have learned to appreciate that about each other,” Pelfrey said. “She will come to me about things and I will go to her about others. I think our differences help each other out.”

Throughout his life, Pelfrey has tried to live by the “golden rule.” Growing up blind, he quickly learned to treat others the way he wanted to be treated.

“The biggest thing I learned initially is that life is not fair and that it’s OK,” Pelfrey said. “Not everything is going to be the way you think it should or ought to be. Yes, you’re not going to be treated right because of your blindness, but you try to find ways to overcome it.”

Making a difference

After his original career plan in broadcast radio didn’t work out, Pelfrey went back to college and received a master’s degree in judicial affairs at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

When he was trying to decide what to do with his degree, helping students continually came to his mind.

“I thought I was going to be the morning drive guy,” Pelfrey said. “When I realized that it was not going to happen, I thought what else can I do and I realized that I missed being on a university campus.”

Before moving to Hudson Hall, Pelfrey had worked as coordinator of judicial affairs at Southeast Missouri State University and as a hall coordinator at the University of Miami (Ohio). This year wasn’t the first time he applied for a job at MU, though.

About six years ago, Pelfrey applied for a position as an area coordinator. But at the time, he didn’t have enough experience, Frankie Minor, residential life director, said.

When Pelfrey interviewed for his current position, Minor thought that it would be a good fit because of his background in working with college students. Minor also saw other strengths in Pelfrey.

“Jim is a good role model for other students with different types of disabilities,” Minor said. “It would show them that they can overcome these things.”

This marks the first time residential life has had a visually impaired person on staff. Residential life will continue to monitor how well Palfrey handles emergency situations, but Minor said he thinks it will be a good experience for both Pelfrey and MU.

“Our process should be open to anyone regardless of their mobility. We had a good candidate who was highly motivated, and it was a good opportunity to make sure our system was fully accessible,” Minor said.

Fitting into a new home

Opal and Pelfrey have been a team for almost six years, and Palfrey said he knew Opal was a special dog from the first time they met at The Seeing Eye in New Jersey.

“We were walking around and it was a little bit icy. I slipped and she looked back at me. I have had other dogs before and they don’t usually do that. I knew this dog really liked me,” he said.

Opal, a Labrador-retriever mix, is Pelfrey’s fourth Seeing Eye dog, and Pelfrey hopes to continue working with Opal for at least two more years, making her his longest tenured dog.

“She is funny out of harness, kind of a nut and very playful,” Palfrey said. “When the harness is on, though, it’s like flipping a switch, time to go to work now.”

So far, Pelfrey and Opal have been working on adjusting to their new environment. Pelfrey is confident his experience as a hall coordinator will help him to make the transition.

“We’re learning,” he said. “That is always the challenge of knowing every nook and cranny. Opal is really a good worker, and we are picking up a lot, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Pelfrey has already taken the time to establish a rapport with his student staff members. They have had group meetings, and Pelfrey has hosted a “spaghetti night” in his apartment.

Miles Gaudet, a staff member at Hudson, said he doesn’t think Pelfrey will have any problem with his new position.

“I think Jim is definitely capable of doing everything,” Gaudet said. “It’s going to take some time for people to drop preconceived notions of people with disabilities and respect who he is as a person.”

Whether students are looking for him or just want to see Opal, Pelfrey is hoping students will come by and want to talk.

“I always have firmly believed that this is where I am supposed to be in a university setting,” Pelfrey said. “This job gives me the opportunity to do things for students that I feel I did not get as a college student.”

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