On Wednesday past an unlikely trio took on Stormont’s big hill – a 29-year-old structural engineering student who is originally from Greece, a 61-year-old counsellor from east Belfast, and a 40-year-old journalist from the News Letter attempting to keep up with his interviewees.
The reason for the leisurely stroll through Stormont’s grounds was to find out more about the friendship that Evi Gyftaki and Norma Moore have struck up after being matched through Guide Dogs’ innovative ‘My Guide’ scheme.
The scheme trains volunteers to become ‘sighted guides’ for people like Norma – who lost her sight in a car accident at the age of 16 – and allow them to go for more challenging walks out and about in the local area.
Evi and Norma have been in a partnership since October. The Greek national, who lives in Carryduff after coming to NI four years ago, picks Norma up from her home at Knock Road and brings her to the locations like Stormont and Victoria Park.
Norma commented: “I’ve had two guide dogs myself in the past, but I’d had a bad fall a couple of years ago and it really shook my confidence. I had to wait a while before I got paired off with Evi, but she was worth waiting for. We always have something to chat about and plenty of laughter which is very good mental exercise.”
Talking about the differences between walking with a person as opposed to a dog, Norma said: “I suppose the big difference is the conversation. You’ve also got more choice of where you can go. Areas like Stormont would be very difficult for a guide dog because they’re trained on pavements.
“You have to be attentive all the time when you’re with a dog, so you never really relax.
“I use a cane now rather than a guide dog. Because of the counselling work I do it’s not ideal for me to have a dog with me.”
In order to walk through the grounds of Stormont, Norma rests her hand on Evi’s forearm. Although Evi is leading Norma – such is their understanding of each other – it would be difficult for anyone to distinguish them apart from two lifelong friends walking arm in arm at their own pace.
“We started out in Victoria Park because it’s nice and flat. That helped me get my confidence back after the fall,” said Norma. “Stormont is my favourite. Parts of it are so challenging and there’s such a lovely atmosphere.
“I can remember roughly what it looked like when I did have my sight, but I’d say it’s changed a heck of a lot.”
Evi said: “Norma and I go out rain or shine and we just talk constantly for an hour and a half. It’s lovely to chat to someone with different interests and it’s great to be in a routine of getting out walking – something I’d be unlikely to do on my own.
“I would recommend becoming a sighted guide to anyone. It’s just two hours of your week but it makes a big difference.”
Norma added: “The only time we missed out was when it snowed.”
Alluding to the fact they had a journalist tagging along on Wednesday night, Norma commented: “We normally go at a much quicker pace, but because we’re being interviewed we’re going a bit slower.”
Our route saw us meander through woodland before taking a short cut across the grass area, then onto the main paved avenue leading up to Carson’s statue. “We like to do different textures,” said Norma. “If you get out and exercise on a regular basis it’s amazing how the chemicals in your brain change.
“I would have gone to gyms but that got so boring and wouldn’t have helped me with confidence about going out and about. This exercise gives me a confidence about rough ground without thinking I’m going to fall again.”
On the subject of confidence Norma talked about the moment her life changed as a teenager: “I was in a car accident when I was 16. I’m totally blind, no light reception even. The optic nerves were severed. My others senses are not heightened contrary to what people might say. It’s a misconception.
“I was in the middle of GCEs when it happened. I was out with friends, having a break during exam time. I went right from the back seat through the front window. There were no seat belts in the back seat in those days.
“When you lose your sight you lose all sense of yourself. You could very easily become a recluse. The support you get from friends and family is so important.
“I lost my father when I was eight. My mum had to go out and work so my sister and I had to have a level of independence. That independence has stood me in good stead.”
She continued: “I had wanted to do nursing, so that was out. I went to boarding school over in England and finished my education.
“I’ve had a very fulfilling life. I was determined to get my education. That’s why I did the degree in psychology, and before that a certificate and diploma in counselling.”
Of their walks Evi said: “We count our steps every week. Once we did 7,000 steps. Most partnerships go for coffee, but we’ve never been. We just keep walking.”
Norma added: “I’d recommend the scheme to anyone with sight loss. I hope Evi and I will keep meeting for the foreseeable future, it really is a highlight of my week.”