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Mysterious $125 Million Windfall Will Take LightHouse for the Blind into the 21st Century

Why one businessman left his fortune to a group he’d never met.

Rendering of the kitchen at the LightHouse’s new building, set to open in June.

 

This story is part of the March feature "Blind People Don’t Need Your Help—They Need Better Design." Read it here.

No one at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired had ever heard of Donald Sirkin, but when he died in 2014, he left the organization $125 million. The gift—thought to be the largest single bequest to a blindness advocacy group in American history—is more than 15 times the LightHouse’s annual budget. “It was a tremendous vote of confidence,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin.

Sirkin was a Seattle millionaire businessman who lost his vision in his 70s but remained in the closet about his blindness. “He had macular degeneration in the last six to eight years of his life and was probably ashamed of it,” says Bashin, “like so many seniors are when they start losing vision.” Bashin came to that conclusion after visiting the late Sirkin’s Puget Sound residence, which the LightHouse also inherited, to learn more about the mysterious benefactor. In the house Bashin found all sorts of magnifiers, light boxes, and large plasma-screen TVs—devices that he had used while in denial about his own deteriorating vision.

Sirkin’s daughter—who inherited about $250,000, as did her brother—was not happy about the bequest. Claiming that she had been physically and sexually abused by her father, she sued his estate last May. If she wins, she will get a small percentage of the funds that have been transferred to the LightHouse.

Bashin already has plans for the rest. Some of it will fund the new headquarters, currently under construction. Some may be used to create awards and grants for the blind. Blindness training for anyone, regardless of immigration status, and increasing employment opportunities for the blind are also on Bashin’s list.


Originally published in the March issue of 
San Francisco

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