Joyce Gugel has overcome the obstacles of legal blindness for more than 40 years and is fulfilling big dreams for the Beyond Blind Institute.
Her flawlessly lined and shadowed hazel eyes tell the story. Behind them lurks a darkness caused by Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration that has stopped Joyce Gugel from seeing, but not much else.
In 1984, she entered the Mrs. Florida pageant and emerged as a finalist. She turned her sense of style into a money-making fashion-show business that organized and staged runway events. She put her skills as a high school drama student to use critiquing play rehearsals at the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater.
“I wanted to experience all of the fun things in life,” Gugel, 63, says. “I wanted to experience everything in this world that I couldn’t physically see.”
The Rockford, Illinois, native represented Lancôme Paris as a beauty consultant and also became an interior designer. She’s been featured on QVC and Home Shopping Network. Gugel isn’t completely blind—she can see peripherally, but when she’s looking straightforward her vision is obstructed.
“I’m a very corporate, independent woman,” Gugel says, seated on a sofa in her well-appointed living room that attests to her savvy for interior design. “That’s who I am.”
Married with three grown daughters, the red-dress-and-strappy-sandal-wearing woman continues to make strides despite her disability. Her newest venture: founding and serving as president of Beyond Blind Institute, a non-profit whose mission entails empowering the visually impaired and providing them with experiences similar to the ones she sought out at age 22 after losing her vision.
“I know their world,” Gugel says. “I live in their world. If tomorrow, you lost your eyesight, where would you go, and what would you do?”
For six years, the center has offered educational, health and wellness courses including exercise-oriented “Bodies Beyond Blindness,” culinary-themed “Sightless Chef” and the art-inspired “Brushes of Blindness.” Currently, those programs partner with local institutions such as Loggerhead Fitness, Whole Foods Market, Cheney Brothers and Lighthouse Art Center.
Gugel has initiated a capital campaign to build a home for Beyond Blind and double its program offerings—for both the visually impaired and the sighted. The LaPlaza Performing Arts Theatre and Cultural Center, which is being designed by architect Leo Daly, will be located in the former Loehmann’s Plaza in Palm Beach Gardens and is expected to open by the summer of 2018. It will feature a 2,800-seat performing arts theater, a dance studio, an art gallery, an Olympic-size swimming pool, an expansive organic garden and more.
“I’m building them a new world,” she says. “There is nothing out there that has taken blindness to this level.”
Gugel remembers feeling helpless the day her disease progressed to the point where she no longer could see objects directly in front of her—the hallmark of Stargardt’s.
“I left work Friday, returned Monday and couldn’t see my keyboard,” she says. “It went that quickly.”
Gugel wants others who have lost their eyesight to embrace their journeys and, to that end, she has combined her deep-rooted drive with her powerhouse personality to put the plaza on the map.
“The sky’s the limit for me,” Gugel says. “Whatever it takes to change the world of blindness and lift it to new heights, I am dedicated to doing.”