A Light in the Dark

June 30, 2021

By Adrienne Egolf

Kyle Johnson ’07 learned a lot as an English major at Rollins. But the most important lesson was one he thought he already knew. “Someone told me to take Rick Bommeljie’s Listening course, and I thought in my head, ‘I’ve been listening my whole life,’” he recalls. “No. I hadn’t.”

Turns out Johnson had a lot to learn about something he thought was innate. He remembers testing his hearing in the class, carefully reviewing 911 emergency recordings, studying the environmental and psychological and physical noise that interferes with close listening—and it changed how he saw the world.

It was an experience that played out more than once at Rollins, where Johnson attended the Hamilton Holt School while working full-time in wealth management.

“By the time I got to Rollins, I think I had a call to service in me, but I didn’t really understand it,” he says. “I cared about service, but going to Rollins definitely reinforced that. It made me feel like I was on the right track.”

Johnson is the president and CEO of the nonprofit Lighthouse Central Florida and its sister B Corporation, Lighthouse Works, both of which serve blind and visually impaired members of the Central Florida community.

“If you’re born blind or become visually impaired at any age in Central Florida, for the past 42 years, Lighthouse Central Florida is the organization you’d turn to, to help you live as though you’re not blind,” he explains.

Kyle Johnson, CEO of Lighthouse Works
Photo by Scott Cook.

Lighthouse Works, meanwhile, is a social enterprise subsidiary that creates competitive career opportunities for the visually impaired and generates revenue for the organization outside of philanthropy and government grants. Johnson explains that seven out of 10 visually impaired people are unemployed or out of the labor market despite having college degrees or previous work experience or being entrepreneurs themselves.

“Unfortunately, the world assumes you’re incapable of anything if you’re blind,” says Johnson. “But all the careers that people have at Lighthouse Works are no different from mine—same interview process, same accountability. There’s upward mobility and benefits, you name it.”

Johnson speaks so passionately about his cause that it’s easy to assume he found his purpose early in life. But the truth is, Johnson didn’t always know this is where his path would lead. After graduating high school, he spent a few years taking community-college classes and working before pursuing his education in earnest.

Eventually, he enrolled at Rollins, eager to earn a degree that would advance his budding career in wealth management and excited to study among experts at a respected institution. He was not disappointed. At Rollins, with the help of professors like Bommeljie, Johnson learned how to stretch his expectations for himself. He remembers pitching the topic of his capstone paper to Maggie Dunn: a short poem by the 13th-century poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.

“It’s a very small poem for a very big paper,” he remembers. “I was really nervous that she wouldn’t allow me to do it, but she supported it and celebrated it. She showed me that you don’t have to walk the same lines that everyone expects you should walk. You should reach and do your best to be yourself and who you are.”

Now, Johnson is the one sharing that lesson with Rollins students. As community partners, Lighthouse Central Florida and Lighthouse Works host Rollins students for a variety of learning opportunities. Johnson has worked alongside social entrepreneurship professor Cecilia McInnis-Bowers and the Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Hub to create real-world, problem-solving workshops for students that expose them to the work at Lighthouse. For the past several years, a Crummer student has sat on the board. This year, the organizations will sponsor an on-campus “Dining in the Dark” event to raise awareness about visual impairment.

Each project is an opportunity for Johnson to pass on the wisdom he’s gained through his own Rollins experience—a task he says he’s happy and compelled to take on—and to listen once again to his ever-present call to serve.

“I’m not kidding when I say, I had no idea where I’d be in my career,” he says. “Honestly, that’s why I’m so passionate about the work I do in this sector because it really gave me my life. For me, having gone to Rollins and then experienced this renaissance in myself—where I literally didn’t know what I should be doing in my life, and now I’m doing exactly what I was born to do—it’s a dream come true.”

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