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Unsung Hero: Marilyn McDowell of Portland, sharing sight and insight

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Unsung Hero: Marilyn McDowell of Portland, sharing sight and insight

PORTLAND — Marilyn McDowell, a volunteer for the Iris Network, often gets insensitive questions like “Why would a blind person want to go bowling or attend a baseball game?”

Her response: “Why wouldn’t they?”

McDowell, a Portland resident who works at the University of Southern Maine library, began her association with the Iris Network in 1993.

“I saw an ad from the Maine Center for the Blind (the former name of the Iris Network) for a recreation assistant, which sounded appealing,” she said.

Helping people who are blind and visually impaired enjoy recreational activities is just one of the many programs and services sponsored by the Iris Network, an organization that describes its mission as “Helping people who are visually impaired or blind obtain independence and community integration.”

McDowell answered the ad and was soon put through the training process.

“I had never walked with a blind person before, and I had to do so as part of the training," she recalled. "The man was holding my arm as we walked to Deering Oaks, and he could tell I was feeling tense, so he said, ‘Just relax.’”

McDowell has definitely learned to relax during her 20 years of service to the blind and visually impaired. From September to April she takes several people bowling along with another volunteer.

“There are no bumper guards; we just help line them up correctly," she said. "Each person bowls a full game and then the next person takes a turn.”

For the last five years, a group of blind bowlers have bowled against sighted bowlers who are required to wear blindfolds The blind bowlers have won the competition in recent years. (“It’s really hard for sighted bowlers to wear a blindfold and try to bowl,” McDowell said).

But McDowell’s service to the Iris Network is not limited to the bowling alley. She occasionally accompanies a group to a Portland Sea Dogs game, or a day at the beach, or a concert in the park.

“I’ll do anything they need me to do,” she said.

She once took one of the Iris Network residents, a man named John who plays the accordion, to the All Souls Chapel in Poland Spring. Gary Sredzienski, an accordionist with a polka show on a Durham, N.H. radio station, played at the chapel that day. McDowell later had Sredzienski play John a song on his show in honor of John’s birthday, and she sent the recording to John.

“I really enjoy the residents,” McDowell said. “They’re so upbeat and interesting. And they really appreciate what I do. It’s so rewarding.”

Janet Taylor, recreation therapist/volunteer coordinator at the Iris Network, said “Marilyn is just one of the many wonderful volunteers we have working with us. We couldn’t make all these activities happen without their help.”