Living independently with a disability isn’t just a hollow mantra for executive director Dr. Dennis Atkins of the Disabled Citizens Alliance for Independence. Although blind, Atkins helps lead an organization that annually serves more than 2,000 clients, he’s composed nearly 200 pieces of published writing and he’s also run more than 100,000 miles. In fact, as of his interview with The Salem News, Atkins’ lifetime total was at 100,197 miles. For comparison, if you wanted to match Atkins’ tally, you’d have to start running from Salem, circle the Earth four times, and then keep going to New Orleans.
Impressed? You can meet the man himself Friday when DCAI hosts it sixth annual Jaypack fundraiser at the Viburnum High School gymnasium.
“I believe in living independently and in the philosophy that DCAI stands for,” Atkins says. “Whether you have a disability or not, you’re going to encounter challenges in life. There are too many people who give up. They have a dream, and due to one reason or another, they give it up. I want those folks to know you don’t have to abandon your dreams. You are the only person limiting your potential.”
DCAI is a Viburnum-based nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities learn to live independently and be self-sufficient. It provides services to students and individuals across a nine-county area of South-Central Missouri which includes Dent County. Atkins’ journey to taking the helm at DCAI began decades ago while he was growing up north of St. Joseph in the Rosendale community.
“It was a very small town in a very rural part of northwest Missouri,” Atkins says. “I remember growing up there with my dad and saying one day we would buy a small farm and raise cattle. From the beginning that was always the goal.”
Success sprouted early for Atkins. He cultivated a growing career with American Family Insurance and took on the hobby of running. From the beginning he’s kept track of every mile he’s completed.
It was in July of 1979 that Atkins was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It’s a hereditary eye disease which destroys the retina’s photosensory cells. Doctors told him he’d only have two more years of sight. The blindness started with loss of night vision, then peripheral vision and finally everything else.
“It’s kind of been like a dimmer switch on a light, as the years have gone by it’s gotten dimmer and dimmer. Today, I can only really see very bright lights,” Atkins says. “When I knew I was losing my sight I was living in a St. Charles subdivision without much traffic around, so I would go out at night and run in the dark. It was scary in the beginning, but that’s how I overcame my fear and taught myself to run without the benefit of eyesight.”
Atkins hasn’t let blindness slow him down. In addition to his daily running he’s completed 83 full marathons. That includes 10 organized events and 73 instances in which Atkins went out alone.
Atkins has kept working, too. His career with American Family Insurance lasted through 34 years and several moves to different cities.
In 2012 Atkins decided the time had come to realize his childhood dream. He moved to Viburnum to work for DCAI, bought some land outside of town and on May 10, 2016, he purchased his first heifers. Atkins also paved a running path with his new 450-foot driveway.
“Some days I’ll wake up, and I’ll say to myself ‘I’m going to run a marathon today’ and then down the driveway I go,” Atkins says.
In addition to leading DCAI, Atkins has also traveled widely to speak with different churches, conferences and organizations. He’ll next be visiting Toronto, Canada, to deliver a speech to the Canadian Foundation for Fighting Blindness.
“The key to being successful is to stay motivated, have confidence and communicate well,” Atkins says. “You have to trust others. I may not be able to see where I am going or drive, but I can grab an elbow and say confidently take me where we need to go. It’s much the same when it comes to running an organization. You put people in different positions, and you have to trust and believe in them. When you do, you instill confidence, and they’ll do everything in their power to make sure you are all successful.”
Friday, Atkins will be helping to raise money for the Viburnum area’s Jaypack program. It sends children home from school with food to stave off hunger through the weekends. Atkins says he’ll be running one mile for every kid the fundraiser helps.
“I’m 63 years old now, and I’m not going to lie, I think I am going to spread the total out over a few days and not take it all on at once,” Atkins says. “Running helps me overcome my fears. It’s given me confidence to know I can run an organization without eyesight, continue to live my life the way I want to and play a role in improving the lives of others.”