A goal in sight – Michelle Forte LeBlanc’s program puts visually impaired runners on a path to success

The young runner’s hand gently grips his partner’s elbow. They walk tentatively at first, then grow comfortable with the connection and stretch their strides into an easy jog. To the casual observer, these athletes look like any others training for a big race.

And that’s exactly what Michelle Forte LeBlanc had in mind when she decided to launch an innovative new running program for blind and partially sighted young people. Working in partnership with the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, LeBlanc and a team of volunteers are helping 17 students find their footing and set their sights on an exhilarating new objective.

“I’ve actually been wanting to do this for a while,” explains LeBlanc, owner of Fleet Feet Sports’ local store and a longtime marathon competitor. “I was a member of Delta Gamma at LSU, and our philanthropy is sight conservation and aid to the blind.”

LeBlanc’s idea was to help visually impaired students train for a true road race—a take-off on Fleet Feet’s existing “No Boundaries” couch-to-5K initiative. LSVI Director Bobby Simpson embraced the proposal, as did nearly two dozen faculty members; on any given training evening, Simpson and the teachers can be found running right alongside the kids. Volunteers, including store employees and customers as well as Delta Gamma collegiate members and alumnae, also serve as guides for the young runners.

“The unique part of this program has been that it is targeted to students who are not our regular athletes,” Simpson says. “We have students who run track and wrestle and actually a few who play football. This was intended to reach the other students, and it has been very successful. We are seeing kids be active who normally are not.”

The students involved, who range in age from 5 to 19, will complete the program by taking part in the “Fight for Sight” 5K fun run Oct. 3 on the school’s campus. Members of the public are also invited to participate, and proceeds from the event will be donated to the school’s Volunteer Services Council.

“It’s been amazing,” says LeBlanc, adding that she hopes to continue the program on a semiannual basis. “These kids are just so excited. They really go all out when they’re running out there.”