Just months ago, Vancouver-based young professional Lesley Kim’s life was changed forever in a tragic Halloween accident that would result in the removal of her left eye. Kim may have to adapt to her now limited vision when it comes to things like snowboarding and even some daily tasks, but the incredible insight she gained offered a whole new vision that has not only changed her life, but that of countless others as well. Inspired by the initiatives of Seva Canada, a local Vancouver charity that prevents blindness and restores vision in developing nations, Kim and her family hosted The Spectacle gala on Jan. 31st at The Vancouver Club. The sold-out event raised an impressive $120, 305 for Seva Canada– that’s equal to 2406 sight-restoring cataract surgeries. We caught up with Kim to hear more about her truly remarkable initiative…
Can you explain what transpired on the evening of this horrible accident? Did you know right away that it would change your life forever?
I hadn’t been out for Halloween for a really long time. My friends sort of coaxed me to come out and I thought, ok, you know what, I am going to do this, and got together a costume. I was actually dressed as a vampire, not a scandalous vampire but a really scary one, and had authentic stage blood all down my neck. We were walking on a street in Gastown, in downtown Vancouver and someone behind me set off a firecracker. I turned because of the sound of it, and just as I turned, it hit me right in the eye. I probably go without my eyeglasses biannually and ironically enough, this would be one of those nights because I was wearing those cosmetic vampire contacts. As soon as it hit me, I knew exactly what it was, that being a bottle rocket. I tried to get it out but it had exploded within seconds. I knew right away that my eye was pretty much done because I know another person who lost his eye quite tragically a couple of years ago and that was the outcome. Before the paramedics even arrived, it was a large blessing to have that immediate acceptance and I was sitting on the ground and was actually really calm. I didn’t scream and just sort of took a few deep, meditative breaths, but because I had that costume blood on I think people walking by just thought I was a drunken person on the sidewalk. I knew that the eye was done, but I didn’t know what my face looked like and it took three or four days after to even touch my face or look in the mirror. But I really lucked out, and came out with the best possible outcome. It hit me so square in the eye ball that there was very little facial damage except for a hairline facture in my cheek and burnt nerves, but for the most part structurally, my face was fine. I have a little bit of issues on my lower lid that will be cosmetically treated. I will have surgery in late spring but other than that, everything is the same.
How long were you in the hospital for?
I was in the hospital for just under two weeks, and I had a couple surgeries during that time, and the first was basically to remove my eye. The reason they decided to do that is because the nerves are so connected in your vision that often when there is trauma and lose of sight in one eye, you can lose your vision in the other.
When did you decide that you wanted to take this tragedy and turn it into an incredibly positive thing? Had you heard about Seva Canada before?
I hadn’t. It was one of those situations that was both fortunate and unfortunate in a lot of ways in that you often don’t pay attention to certain things until something happens to you. I had never heard of Seva before but how my involvement transpired was really that I had received so much from my community in Vancouver, Toronto and globally… from friends and family and even complete strangers. It was unbelievable. I mean, it looked like my hospital room was a flower shop. I felt so overwhelmed and touched by all the love and the support that continued on for weeks following. I had visitors from literally 8am-10pm every day. I have to thank the nurses at VGH because they were probably so stressed out about the number of visitors I had. At one point we counted and there were something like 42 people in the room. After all of that madness quieted down when I was discharged, it was really soon after the fact and I was having difficulty sleeping but had chosen not to take any painkillers at this point, not because I was trying to be a hero, but I just really did not like how the morphine was altering my mind. As a side effect of not taking these drugs, I was waking up at 4:00 or 5:00 am and it was on one of these mornings that I was just feeling very restless. I had cabin fever because I had not been outside, but I was so overwhelmed by all the support that I was receiving. Guilty is not the right word, but I just didn’t feel right accepting all this support as one singular entity and I started Googling different organizations. I came across a few and narrowed it down to three, one of which was Seva, but I wanted to do my due diligence in terms of research. I wanted to make sure where the funds were being appropriated, how they conduct themselves as an organization, what exactly they do in these developing countries abroad and how effective the charities really are. I discovered that I was heavily tied to Seva’s chair, Nancy Mortifee, within my high school network because her husband was part of the board of governors for my high school and they are heavily connected to the school. Their daughters are not only alumnae but also teachers as well there. It gave working with Seva an extra sense of familiarity, but I based my decision on the criteria I mentioned previously and Seva was the one that I was most taken with. So, that’s how that came about.
Can you describe The Spectacle?
It was put together within four weeks with a fabulous committee of mine of six wonderful, brilliant women. Usually I do a holiday dinner with close friends where I ask them to donate $20-30 dollars for the homeless on the downtown east side here in Vancouver. With the amount of support I was receiving when I was thinking about Seva, I thought that I needed to think bigger about my contribution. The Vancouver Club was the first to come on board and they were great support in terms of wanting to create this great event so through them and our other sponsors, we ended up with a three-course gala dinner with wine pairings, dancing, live entertainment, a gaming room courtesy of Hard Rock Casino, a silent auction and a fabulous dessert bar. It was all about the community uniting to execute this thing. I don’t think I really understood the word gratitude or community until this all happened. Everyone pulled together and it was such a successful evening, especially in the 4-week execution time. I was joking that it was my wedding reception because I don’t know if mine would reach the calibre. We sold out and were above capacity that was one of our last minute crises, but we managed to sort it all out and had a grand total of 205 guests.
Had you organized an event like this before?
I own my own catering company so I have done small-scale events, but our niche market is private, European style dinners, so at most it is 20 people. So no, I had not done something on this grand of a scale. We had a fantastic event planner Cristina Samper of Fluent Productions who was onboard as a committee member and Paul Melo of Style Quotient who did all the our branding as well as Jennifer Maloney of Yulu PR who really helped spread the word.
Do you ever have moments of anger against the person who did this to you and the situation in general? How do you stay so incredibly positive?
Acquaintance is too strong of a word to use for this person, but it is somebody that I know of and he stayed on scene. I have been quite private about his name. I knew from the start that I needed to focus on my health and myself and didn’t want to go through court and deal with all that negativity in any way. I have met with him since and one of the greatest lessons I have learned from this entire experience is that of forgiveness. I went on a solo sabbatical by myself over the holidays in a house in Los Angeles for about five weeks and did a lot of thinking and soul searching– there was some wine in there too– but the main focus was on emotional wellness. I realize that being bitter is not going to bring my eye back, and it isn’t going to make me feel like a decent and proud human being at all. His regret, sincerity and genuine apology are enough for me. Had it been someone who was doing this maliciously with the intent to harm another individual, I would probably take a different approach, but I think the incident will probably plague this person more than it will me in life. I am happy to leave it at that.
In terms of being angry, I have my moments, not necessarily directed at this person, but it is more like what the h- I don’t have an eye. Most comes in waves – like the other day it took me 30-minutes to thread a needle and I was so frustrated because it was something I could have done in 30 seconds before. It is a learning process and when those angry moments come, I try to embrace them, and to allow them to kind of take over. I may have to do the ugly cry for as long as I need to do it and then just let it go until next time. I hope this individual works on his emotions as well; I try to put myself in his situation and imagine how I would feel if I was him.
Who did you turn to for strength/inspiration?
My family has been amazing and my friends are a part of my family. In terms of my immediate family, my mom and dad and two sisters have been great it has really brought us closer than I even thought was possible, which is a blessing. As soon as my cousin Amanda heard what had happened, she dropped everything and put her work and life on hold and flew out here to take care of me. My cousin Anne down in LA was wonderful too, but really everyone has.
What do you hope that people will take from your story?
I want to draw attention to the cause and all that Seva does for blindness prevention, education and, of course, these amazing cataract surgeries that cost $50 per surgery to restore someone’s sight. I am not here to make people feel bad and say, “Look at these displaced individuals and look at you living in the First World, you should feel bad and if they don’t get this money they are going to die.” That’s not it at all. I understand that we all work very hard for ourselves and families and responsibilities and should be able to enjoy the fruits of our labour, but if at all you are in the capacity to help someone for $50, and to be able to bring awareness to that means more to me than anything. I am so fortunate to be able to still see. Not long ago I was zipping down the LA freeway in a car. There are very few things that I wont be able to do. I can’t snowboard this season but I will get there and my quality of life is going to be just fine. To know that $50 dollars is going to change someone’s life and give them the opportunity to have one and provide for themselves and their family is remarkable. When Penny Lyons, the Executive Director of Seva Canada spoke at the dinner she told the guests of this one woman who needs to be tied to a rope when she goes out because she cant see anything. She described another who had never seen her grandchild, and who got this surgery and was able to see her children again and their children for the first time. Not to mention, she is now able to contribute to her family again in a working capacity and that makes such a difference to people in these countries. Out of the 39 million blind people in these areas, 31 million of them are curable. We truly are so privileged in Canada with our healthcare systems.
The other thing I hope people take away from my situation is the understanding that happiness truly is a choice. I certainly could sulk in a corner, lament life and the loss of my eye etc., but I can see the effects, the growth and healing power of positive thinking. It’s not just an over saturated slogan to me, it has become survivalist mentality and I am embracing it as a way of life.
What does the next year look like for you in terms of your involvement with Seva?
The event was meant to be a one off thrown by the Kim Family Foundation, which was a foundation my father Charles Kim started. However, I have been receiving emails, texts and phone calls from people telling me that they can’t wait until next year. We will have to see; maybe it will just have to happen again. In terms of Seva, I know my family and I are excited to plan a trip through the organization to visit one of the eye clinics in Tibet and I think that will be the highlight of everything for me…to see firsthand what this evening has provided.
Though the event is over, you can always donate directly to Seva.ca.
#LYNL (Live Your Notable Life)
Images from: Butter Studios