A hand set on someone else’s shoulder can convey any number of symbolic meanings, among which is reassurance and support.
Sometimes, though, the sensation even surges in both directions.
That’s the way it works between Cheryl and Allen Kohlsteadt, who can’t see out of his right eye and registers only vague light in his left some 40 years after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.
Because of that, the shoulder of his wife, administrator at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, has been a steady source of strength and nurturing in the 38-year marriage of the Liberty couple.
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It’s through that extension of himself that Allen, 70, has learned to walk for exercise in the years since his sight has disintegrated to the point where he can’t see a visitor a few feet away … even as he remains grateful for so much.
Without his Christian faith, he says, he would not have been able to cope with it nearly as well — well enough that he’ll be walking 13.1 miles in the Kansas City Marathon on Saturday, hand on Cheryl’s shoulder all the way.
He was lucky, he’ll tell you, too, that in his case the disease manifested later in life than it normally does.
He also is grateful for the help of such state programs as Rehabilitation Services for the Blind in Kansas City.
That has provided countless benefits, including aid that enabled him to keep working until he retired five years ago as controller of a manufacturing plant in Excelsior Springs, and access to audio from a library in Jefferson City that allows him to listen to recordings of anything from autobiographies to the content in The Star.
That office also provided mobility training … but not just for him.
While much of what he learned was with the use of a white cane, a part of it was how to move in tandem with Cheryl, 66.
“To have somebody like Cheryl alongside, encouraging me and helping me deal with it makes all the difference,” he said.
Walking has been vital to their health, mental as well as physical, though they’d found themselves lagging some in recent years.
But a convergence of factors made them rededicate themselves to the cause … or causes, as it happens, considering the role of Team World Vision in the marathon.
The group is seeking to raise funds and awareness to provide clean water, in this case particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Three years ago, Cheryl visited Sierra Leone on a mission trip with a group from church. Part of the trip included five days on Sherbro Island, off the coast, where there was no running water or electricity.
“I saw children who obviously had scurvy or rickets (and) malnutrition,” she said. “It really touched me in a way I’ve still not recovered from.”
Allen, too, came to be moved by her trip and the awareness of a statistic they cite: 50 percent of children under 5 in that area die from diseases borne from unclean water.
Or, as it is jarringly expressed on the Team World Vision web site, “Nearly 1,000 children under 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation and improper hygiene.”
Armed with information that says every $50 would supply a child with clean water for the rest of their life, Cheryl and Allen became two of the nearly 700 people in the Kansas City area — including hundreds from Pleasant Valley Baptist — who signed on to help raise what they hope will be $500,000 this year.
As of Thursday afternoon, the effort had pledges of $328,618.98.
Cheryl has met her personal goal of $1,500 in pledges, and Allen is almost halfway to his goal of $1,310 — with the capacity to still accept pledges at www.teamworldvision.org/kansascity.
This isn’t the same as running the marathon, Cheryl is quick to say, and they know of many people they believe face greater challenges than Allen will have on Saturday.
But even though they’ve been building up to this through an 18-week program that included a 10-mile walk last week, even if they’ve come to feel that walking together this way “just comes so naturally for us,” as Cheryl put it, they know this will be a new adventure.
They are accustomed to having his right hand on her left shoulder, for instance, largely because he can’t see anything at all out of the right eye that is thus blocked.
Over the course of 13.1 miles, though, they expect they’ll have to change that up some.
And one way or another, they’ll probably lose some of the rhythm that usually has them motoring in cadence at less than 16 minutes a mile for the walks they typically start around 4:30 a.m. so she can get to work on time.
Moreover, it’s not like all this practice makes perfect.
It’s still easy for them to get out of stride for one reason or another, for instance, and have Allen suddenly step on her foot and maybe pull a shoe off.
Sometimes, she forgets to say “duck” when they approach a tree branch.
Once in a while when she’s walking with someone else, she might inadvertently say that … or another of their code words, like “narrow” (a suggestion to turn sideways) or “step.”
So it’s not always easy.
For that matter, the other day when they woke up to walk, Cheryl smacked her face into the corner of his dresser … and blamed him for not turning the light on.
“Which was really stupid,” she said, as they both laughed.
But just as she makes all the difference in his life, she knows he is a tender-hearted man of integrity — one she was lucky to meet 38-plus years ago and face it all with.
“When the times have been tough, and we’ve been really angry with each other,” she said, “we go back to the (knowledge that) God meant for us to be together and work through it.”
With each other’s shoulders to lean on.