Debbie Schaffer reflects – ‘I hope I made a difference’

Debbie seen here with Guide Dog supporters Fae and Bryce Burrows

It was a stirring speech made by a young blind man at a fundraising event, which spurred our former chair, Debbie Schaffer to become involved with our organisation. She reflects the year was 2004 and that speaker was Ryan Honschooten.

Ryan went on to become our youth officer and Debbie became actively involved with, what was then the Association for the Blind WA.

From fundraiser, to board member to chair; after sixteen years and having made a huge contribution during that time, Debbie stepped down earlier this year.

Joining the board

Debbie started attending board meetings at the Association for the Blind WA in 2005. She became a board member in 2006, and within two years was the chairperson.

“It was a meteoric rise, but I was very passionate about what I was doing. In those early years there was lots happening. We were raising money for a new building.’’

I remember that day in 2004 very well. Ryan was very capable, a great story teller. He also displayed a mischievous side to him, but he inspired me and I knew I wanted to do more.

Debbie Schaffer
Fundraiser and Chairperson, VisAbility
Debbie Schaffer stands facing the camera alongside the late Stan Perron
Debbie Schaffer stands alongside the late Stan Perron

The Association launched its ‘Building our Vision’ campaign to gather funds for a Centre of Excellence. This would be for people who were blind or vision impaired. With Debbie’s connections and enthusiasm, money for a new building flooded in. Funds arrived from the corporate sector, private individuals, philanthropists and well-wishers.

Large contributions also came from the West Australian Government, Lottery West and the Stan Perron family. $14.5 million was raised by May 2007.

The Perron Centre

In April 2010, the Centre of Excellence in Victoria Park became The Perron Centre in honour of Stan Perron. He’d been a generous benefactor to the Association over a period of 50 years.

The Perron Centre incorporated Guide Dog services as well as therapy and support to people with low vision.

“It was lovely, it became such a bustling place. I knew when I took on the role that I was never going to be sitting in an office.”

They say it takes a village to raise a family. It’s so true, it was only natural that I wanted to meet everyone – clients, volunteers, Guide Dog trainers, dog boarders and staff.

Debbie Schaffer
Fundraiser and Chairperson, VisAbility

Debbie became a regular at volunteer events and award presentations, becoming immersed in the vision impaired community. It soon became apparent that the new building was a drain on financial resources. The government then unveiled the NDIS – a different way of funding disability services and a period of uncertainty followed.

“It was a time when we had to re-strategise. When the Association’s CEO Margaret Crowley retired after 15 years, we looked for someone who could join us who had a great deal of business acumen and we found that with Dr Clare Allen.”

Name change to VisAbility

Debbie worked closely with Dr Allen to streamline the organisation. It was during this time, in 2013 that the Association celebrated its 100 year anniversary and also changed its name.

“There was this huge consensus of feeling that we were alienating people with vision loss to come to an organisation which had the word blind in the title. We wanted the name to represent all those with sight loss. It was time to modernise ourselves and move into the 21st Century, so from the Association for the Blind WA, VisAbility was born.’’

In 2016, Debbie was awarded a Medal of the Order (OAM of Australia) (link opens in new window) to recognise her service in the disability sector.

“It was a complete shock and a huge honour. To do something I love and to receive recognition for that is very humbling, but I’ve always felt the award should have reflected everyone’s efforts not just mine.’’

Stepping down

Debbie knew that it was time to step down from her role as chairperson of VisAbility some eighteen months before she resigned. She felt someone else who was younger and smarter should step into the role. That person was Aaron Constantine, a businessman, who’s been involved with the organisation for many years and a board member for two.

So what next for Debbie, while she reflects on past achievements, what will she do with her spare time?

“That’s a good question, I’m not good at doing nothing. I still undertake voluntary work with two other charities. I’m a board member at OzHarvest, a leading food rescue charity, and the President of the United Israel Appeal Women’s Division at national level.’’

A grandmother with three adult children, her extended family also keeps her busy. One lives in Perth, another in Sydney and the third in New York. She lost her first born child, a boy, Ashley, in a tragic drowning accident when he was nearly three-years-old.

“A few years ago, I helped to fundraise for a kindergarten in Dianella – which was named in his honour. My granddaughter’s name is Ashley and she now attends that kindergarten, so it’s a lovely way to preserve my son’s memory.’’

Her three children were all visiting Debbie and her husband John when COVID struck.

“My daughter who lives in New York, came for a ten-day holiday and ended up staying for fifteen weeks! But you know it was lovely having them all together.”

“I like to think I made a difference, if I helped just one person than that’s good enough for me.’’

Debbie Schaffer
Fundraiser and Chairperson, VisAbility