‘I didn’t see my blindness as a disadvantage’: Petaluman shares inspiring story
Hoby Wedler doesn’t take no for an answer.
The Petaluma native, who has been blind since birth, has spent the past 30 years finding creative solutions for what some view as setbacks. From an early age, his parents instilled in him a great sense of resiliency that was reinforced by a few mentors along the way.
“This life is yours to live, do what you want to with it,” he said. “Remember that at the end of the day, every decision comes with a consequence. … It’s all about challenges and taking responsibility for those challenges and taking responsibility for all of our own actions. My parents were great about teaching me how to do life as a blind person and how to get out there and succeed and meet people and connect with the world. That was a really wonderful thing. I didn’t see my blindness as a disadvantage.”
His ceaseless positivity and outside-the-box thinking has allowed him to work with Francis Ford Coppola’s winery leading blind tastings, graduate with a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from the University of California, Davis, launch a chemistry camp for sight-impaired students and start a Petaluma-based sensory design company.
In 2012, then-president Barack Obama recognized Wedler as a Champion of Change for his work to bolster educational and employment opportunities for those with disabilities, and in 2016, he was recognized as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in its food and drink category.
Tonight, Wedler will reflect on his life and the value of mentorship at local nonprofit Mentor Me’s Light the Path Celebration.
“Good mentors are game changing - they see a future for the people who they’re mentoring before their mentees are able to see that future for themselves,” he said.
Wedler’s journey from Cherry Valley Elementary School to Petaluma High School was influential for him – not only because he mastered the two-mile trek from his west side home to his high school by himself, but because his life was shaped by teachers who helped him realize exactly what he’s capable of.
Freshman year, he met science teacher Lee Boyes, who he later convinced to let him enroll in chemistry class despite initial reservations about the science being too visual.
“I told her ‘no one can see atoms’ and that sold her as a supporter – it was a combination of her being this amazing teacher and role model right alongside me saying ‘this is what I want to do, you’ve sparked this passion in me, now let’s make this possible,’” he said.
For Boyes, who has been teaching for 39 years, working with Wedler was a game changer.
“He probably gave me as much as I gave him,” she said.
The two still stay in touch – she’s helped him lead chemistry camps, attended his graduation and visited his new home in Petaluma.
“Two things about Hoby - one is his incredibly positive demeanor around what many people would use as an excuse for being kind of bitter about the world. I find his positivity and his ability to overcome it very inspiring. And it makes me realize that whatever my problem is, it’s not that big of a deal. The other thing was, and still is, his almost insatiable desire to learn.”
Learning to advocate for himself later allowed Wedler to convince UC Davis’ science department to let him into the program, from which he graduated in 2016. It also allowed him to co-found Senspoint Design, where he works with brands to make more user-friendly designs that appeal to all senses. He recently worked to create a water bottle that’s pleasing to hold and with design elements that reflect the unique flavors in each sip.
He’s learned to adjust to his surroundings, and said he doesn’t wish for sight. It’s enough to smell, taste, touch, hear and experience things in his own way.
“I can smell surroundings and immediately think of something it reminds me of. Outside in Petaluma - I just opened my door - and the rain always reminds me of the ocean mixed with leaves mixed with that beautiful smell of wet pavement … Petaluma in the springtime smells like a combination of wildflowers and alfalfa,” he said on a stormy Monday. “If you break down the smell of alfalfa, it’s natural fresh hay smell mixed with a little bit of plastic. I use my nose for everything around me.”
Mentor Me’s Executive Director Deborah Dalton hopes the event will help attract more mentors for the nearly 18-year-old nonprofit. The organization supports nearly 400 active one-on-one mentorships, with 104 children on the waiting list, she said.
“I really hope that people can kick off the new year with a renewed sense of hope and inspiration to carry on the sense of community and getting closer to our neighbors,” she said. “It’s really not enough to donate things, if we really want to make a change in this world, we have got to be willing to form unlikely partnerships. That’s when the big change and magic is going to happen. We want people to dive in and be vulnerable and brave.”