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Envision: changing the misconception

Mike Melichar rings up deployment items for Tech. Sgt. John Smith, a contracting officer in the 55th Contracting Squadron, Nov. 9, 2015 at the Envision Xpress store, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Melichar worked for a tiling company prior to taking the job at Envisoin. (U.S Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Mike Melichar rings up deployment items for Tech. Sgt. John Smith, a contracting officer in the 55th Contracting Squadron, Nov. 9, 2015 at the Envision Xpress store, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Melichar worked for a tiling company prior to taking the job at Envisoin. (U.S Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Deb Iwanksi tags merchandise Nov. 9, 2015 at the Envision Xpress store, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Iwasnki has been working for the store for eight months. (U.S Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Deb Iwanksi tags merchandise Nov. 9, 2015 at the Envision Xpress store, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Iwasnki has been working for the store for eight months. (U.S Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Walking into the bottom floor of Building D, originally a World War II aircraft assembly plant, can be eerie to say the least. It is dimly lit, with no windows or color. The floor is paved and occasionally wet, resembling a dark alley.

But for customers headed to the Envision supply store, the dreariness remains outside the glass doors.  They are immediately greeted by the contagious smiles and infectious cheerfulness of its cashiers, Deb Iwasnski and Mike Melichar.

"Good afternoon," Iwasnki said. "How can I help you?"

Iwanski and Melichar both sport sunglasses, but not because of the glare from the clean-white-tiled floor or the intense fluorescent lights overhead. They are both blind.

This store is only one of 16 located on military bases across nearly a dozen states. Not only do they employ the visually impaired, they also sell products made by them - and it is their life experiences that make the mission so unique.

Iwanski and Melichar both lost their vision to diabetes. However, the similarities in their stories stop there.

Iwasnki grew up like any other kid, enjoying activities and sports such as volleyball. She went on to marry and become the proud mother of five and grandmother of three.

She spent many years providing home day care and it wasn't until she was 30 that she found out she was diabetic. A couple decades late, after a year and a half of failed optical surgeries, Iwanski lost her sight.

"It slowed everything down and it made me think about life differently," she said. "The hardest part, initially, was trying not to sleep all day because it's dark. Then I had to find things to do. You can listen to the T.V. or the radio, but you can't read a magazine or the newspaper."

She knew she had to get out of the house and do something, but she didn't know where to start.

"I actually heard a Salvation Army ad on T.V. that said they helped people find jobs, so I took the number down and I called," Iwanski said. "They got me in touch with the visually impaired community and the state of Nebraska."

A gentleman from the state began visiting her home once a week and taught her how to use a specialized computer and some other programs they had, like audio books. After her confidence and skills increased, she was able to secure the job at Envision.

For Melichar, his journey started earlier in life. In 1965, at age five, he was diagnosed with childhood diabetes. But he didn't let it slow him down. He drag raced, rock climbed and repelled, and was extremely active in Army JROTC, partaking in the rifle team, drill team and color guard.

His goal was to join the military, but diabetics weren't allowed and he says that was one of the biggest disappointments in his life. After graduating high school, he began working construction.

In his early 20's he starting having surgeries on his eyes, but it became a losing battle. At age 23, he lost his vision completely.

It was his father, a WWII Navy veteran, who became his biggest advocate. He said his father was a very private man who never spoke a lot about his service, so it came as a surprise to learn he had been right in the thick of things on Dec. 7, 1941.

"When I started losing my site and I was in the hospital, my father came up to my room and read something to me because my eyes were patched and covered," Melichar said. "It was an accommodation medal for the time he served in Pearl Harbor. That was the first time he shared that with anybody. He said to me, 'You got to keep fighting, Mike, don't give up.'"

Melichar said he was in denial for many years, and only his closest circle knew he had lost his vision. After three years, he gave in and attended a training facility that taught him a variety of skills, like using a mobility cane and reading braille.

"The hardest part was picking up this white stick, because you can't fool anybody then," he said. "I didn't want sympathy. Unfortunately, people naturally have a very sympathetic demeanor and then they lessen their expectations. I didn't want that. I knew there were things I couldn't do. I knew that life had changed, but I was trying to figure that out."

Melichar did figure it out. He went on to attend Crieghton University and majored in history. He also spent some time abroad as an exchange student studying at York University in England.

"It was strange because the opportunity wasn't there before I lost my sight," he said. "They talk about doors opening when others are closing. That is exactly what happened with me."

Not long after he hit a speed bump. After graduating college, he went into renal failure and was on hemodialysis for five months. Luckily, he was able to receive a kidney and pancreas transplant and life got better.

Sixteen years ago, he married the love of his life, Rosie, a retired Air Force veteran. About a decade ago, he began working for Envision.

Although Iwanski and Melichar traveled very different paths, both led them to Envision.

"This is a great place to work and the people here are as nice as can be and very accommodating," Iwanski said. "You don't get that everywhere."

Melichar echoed her sentiment.       

"Interacting, talking and exchanging views and ideas with customers is what I enjoy doing," he said. "You never know who is going to come through the door. There are people from all parts of the country, and in many cases all parts of the world. To a great extent, it is an educational experience."

To them, it is also about giving back.

"I was always raised with the view that the things that we appreciate and the rights and freedoms we enjoy have been bought and paid for by the commitment, service and sacrifices veterans have made," said Melichar. "So I look forward to the opportunity to help the young men and women who are in the military. Some of them say, 'O, boy, look at all this stuff I get free.' They may consider it free, but when they are expected to go out on that flight line, and it's cold and the wind is blowing 20-below - that is when they are paying for it."

To assist those service members with the check-out process, Iwanski and Malichar's desks have specialized computers that speak to them, but beside the equipment and the glasses, it is hard to tell they are visually impaired.

"I am kind of surprised sometimes when I am working with someone and then all of a sudden they ask 'Can you read this? or, Can you look at this for me?' and I have to tell them I am blind," said Iwanski.

For Melichar, this scenario is what excites him. 

"One of my goals here is to challenge people's misconceptions," he said. "You have a wide cross section of society who comes through the door. If someone tells them 'Blind people can't', then they can say 'No, I know someone who has, can and does.' If they can share that with others then maybe some of the misconceptions can be helped."

They both want people to know how much blind people can still accomplish. Outside of work, Iwasnki still cooks and cleans, and Melichar mows his own grass, work on his car, roof and fence, and enjoys hunting and fishing.

"Don't let other people tell you what your limitations are," Melichar said. "Don't let other people set the standards for you. Challenge yourself."

He also challenges people to really think about what being blind really means.

"Some people close their eyes and think, 'What a burden it would be to be blind,'" Melichar said. "It can be that, but if you are hungry before you closed your eyes and you closed your eyes, you are still hungry. If you had likes and dislikes before you closed your eyes and you closed your eyes those likes and dislikes would remain with you. The thing is, we are still human beings with thoughts, and goals and desires and so forth, it is no different, we just can't see any longer. It is a characteristic."