April Lufriu: Advocate, Warrior Mom & Mrs. World

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Cane EnAbled | April Lufriu: Advocate, Warrior Mom & Mrs. World

Contents:

Editor’s Note

Due to technical issues, our September Cane EnAbled feature is a little late but I think you’ll find it was worth the wait.

Receiving a devastating sight loss diagnosis is never easy. After the initial shock as reality of the situation begins to settle, many people find they have to do something, anything, to get to the point of acceptance. April Lufriu shares her story of the fight to save her sister’s and years later, her children’s sight. Below is the YouTube video and transcription for those who prefer to read. Enjoy! ~Steph

Beyond Sight Magazine Cover

Beyond Sight Magazine Cover Text reads "April Lufriu: Advocate, Warrior Mom & Mrs. World"

YouTube Video

Introduction

Hey everyone, my name is April Lufriu. And I want to first thank Stephanae McCoy for this wonderful opportunity to share my story as an advocate for the blind and visually impaired for her Bold Blind Beauty segment. Thank you, Stephanae.

My story actually begins in 1989. At the time, I was 19 years old and it was only my sister and I and it was just a normal day. I’m leaving to go to work (I’m working my way through college), my sister was coming back from a routine eye exam with my mom.

Now my sister and I both have worn glasses from the time we were really little. My sister was two years old when she started wearing glasses and I was in first grade. Wearing glasses has nothing to do with what I’m about to tell you. Just we had very poor vision. And always were in glasses and contacts and, you know, just always having to deal with visual impairments.

Receiving The Diagnosis

But on this particular day, my sister got back from an appointment. And I could tell it was really different news that was delivered to my mom and my sister. My sister was very, very quiet, you could tell she was crying, confused. My mom looked like she was in total shock. And as I was about to walk out the door, I had to get this information out of my my mom and my sister, like what happened is everything okay?

And basically my mom said that the ophthalmologist told my sister and my mom, that Melissa, my sister was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. We have never heard of such a term such a long name, didn’t really know what it meant. But back in those days, they really didn’t have much to tell you or much hope. And basically, the doctor told my sister to prepare to go blind as she was 21 years old. And that’s really hard news for anybody at any age to know that you’re going to lose your eyesight.

So as time progressed, you could see my sister was struggling with vision loss. But it wasn’t until she’s married, she has children, getting older that her vision loss really started take a huge dive. And that’s when she reached out on the internet and just started Googling, retinitis pigmentosa. What is this? Is there a support group? Is there anything going on? Is there a cure? And we discovered the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

The Journey To Advocacy

My sister reached out and I would say within two days, we had a Foundation Fighting Blindness representative coming to see us in Tampa, which was just unbelievable. We’re like, wow, like this is a miracle, we have people out there that we can reach out. And that was in 2006.

Now the Foundation Fighting Blindness had just started launching their National Vision Walks. But the Tampa Bay area being such a big huge city, didn’t have a chapter within didn’t have any kind of fundraising events. So she saw the desperation between my sister and myself and basically they reeled us in.

My sister and I created the Tampa Bay Chapter. And the next year in 2007, we started with our vision walks. And we had our Vision Walks all the way up until 2013. And we were going strong, we had Dining In The Darks, so we had our own private events. We were just like super gung ho to raise money for research. Because, you know, being desperate and trying to fight and do whatever we could to save her vision, that was really our whole purpose.

So ironic, though, how I was so involved being this rock for my sister, I became the president of our chapter. And 2010 my life completely took a big huge turn. I had children; my son was 10 and my daughter was six. And both of my children were diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It took three doctors to convince me this was the diagnosis, I was in such denial.

Now I knew both my kids struggled visually because my sister and I did wearing glasses. And it was just really really hard for me as a mom to accept this because I saw, I saw how hard it is to see someone lose their vision. I’ve watched my sister for decades go through that.

And to now know that my kids are going to be faced with this sentence, I fell into depression. This was February 2010. And I’ve finally kicked myself out of depression shortly thereafter, with the help of my husband and his encouraging words, and I wanted to do more.

Beauty Pageant For A Purpose

April being crowned Mrs. America. She looks gorgeous in a shimmering gold gown  and "Mrs. America" sash.

Being a pageant girl from many, many years ago, I’ve competed in pageants from the time I was 19, over the course of 20 years, 21 years. Often on competing, never been successful ever. I think the closest I ever got was first runner up. And, but I enjoyed it, because I’m a very shy, quiet person and entering pageants really helps you to face your biggest fears, which is public speaking, and being in front of a crowd. And just really, you know, being out there and showcasing the best you that you could possibly be.

And right after my kids were diagnosed, I was like, You know what? I’m running these vision walks, I need media exposure. So I told my husband, I go, you know, I’m going to compete in the Mrs. Florida America Pageant. He was not really 100% for it, but I’m like, No, no, let me compete, because this will help generate some media attention.

So I entered, like, on a last minute whim, and I tried competing in that pageant system in 2007. And long story, but nothing happened and what I wasn’t successful. So here I go again, second round, trying to win this pageant wasn’t prepared. But you know, what was really prepared was my heart, I was ready to open my heart, be authentic, and just really talk to people.

Basically, I noticed every time I spoke to people about my problems, you know, dealing with vision loss, and my kids having to deal with losing their vision was really therapy for me. And I didn’t discover that till years later. So I enter the pageant. And of course, I was unsuccessful. But I don’t consider it a failure. Because every time you do fail, if you get back up, you’re not failing, you’re improving, you’re re sculpting yourself. You’re reconditioning yourself mentally and physically. But I didn’t think of that at the time, I really thought it was a failure.

The Big Come Back

I got second runner up and I was like, Okay, that’s it. You know, 21 years competing, it’s I don’t know I’m not made to do this. I had someone reach out that I didn’t even know that was there at the pageant. And this was like two months later. And he wanted to reach out because he got all these scores back all these notes from these judges. And he was just really taken back by the feedback they got from my story.

So he went out of his way and said, “April, this is so and so from the pageant. I wanted to reach out and let you know that you blew the judges away. Your story was incredible. You’re so inspirational, what you’re doing, throwing these Vision Walks, being part of a large community for the blind, and being a voice for the blind.” He goes, “please come back.” And he wasn’t even a judge. He’s not even the owner of the pageant, but that’s how much faith he had in me, because I had no faith in me, like whatsoever.

Anyways, I went back, and I said, Okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. I’m not going to enter last minute be unprepared. I mean, you don’t have an athlete going to the Olympics unprepared, right? They’re conditioned or coached, you know they give it 1,000% so that’s what I did.

I made sure I was wearing the right gown that looked good on me (had nothing to do like how much money I spent), had to look good on me. Was it made for April? I was doing all these speaking engagements for the Foundation. So I felt like I was prepared in regards to interview but I went to an interview coach got grilled like super hard. I mean, I walked out of there with a headache like you wouldn’t believe and I felt like a noodle because they like twist and turn and bend and squeeze every emotion out of me and I needed that.

Preparation Pays Off

April as the newly crowned Mrs. America is smiling and wavy to the audience.

I didn’t hire a walking coach because I didn’t I couldn’t afford it. I just watched a bunch of YouTube videos. I really prepared a lot of it myself. I didn’t hire a coach to get me conditioned. I just ate super clean, very clean, low calorie but healthy, super healthy, and started running and I run as fast as sloth. I did what I could.

But you know what? I lost 15 pounds, I was mentally prepared. I felt free as a bird because I was I was ready and open and willing for just to represent represent the blind community. So, February 10 2011, I walked away with a crown of Mrs. Florida America.

Now I didn’t do my homework when I was crowned. I didn’t look to see when Mrs. America would take place. I didn’t know anything. All I wanted to win was Florida. So I can get channel 13, the Tampa Bay Magazine, the temperature view, and I had all these different media outlets lined up because my Vision Walk was in June.

So I had a few months to like, let’s get going. Yeah. So I win, and I’m standing on stage. And they’re like, Oh, my gosh, you’re going to Mrs. America in six weeks. I almost passed out. I’m like, Oh, my gosh, what did I get myself into? And they’re like, it’s at the Greenbrier.

I really felt stupid. And I do know my history, but I didn’t know what the Greenbrier was. So I do sound stupid, because it is a big historical hotel that has a bunker that the Presidents used to use years ago. I learned all this later, but I kept my mouth shut because I was like, Oh, yeah. So the biggest thing if you don’t know anything, keep your mouth shut, so you don’t sound stupid. So I kept my mouth shut. Afterwards, I went back and I Googled, like, what is this place?

So yes, it was a whirlwind. I won and I had six weeks to prepare. And within those six weeks, I lost 15 pounds. I was determined, and got everything lined up. I mean, it’s a big long story, I could talk for probably two hours about this.

Went to Mrs. America, two weeks at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, Sulphur Springs. And it was beautiful. And I walked away with the crown.

Breaking Barriers At The Beauty Pageant

Now, I’ll tell you for any of those competing in a beauty pageant, there’s no cookie cutter mold to winning a pageant. I for one, didn’t even meet that criteria.

  • Because number one, I was 41 years old. Luckily, I always look a lot younger than my age but still technically, you know, there’s an internal biological clock in this body. I’m older, most of the women, they’re in their 20s and 30s. So I had that against me.
  • I’m only five, four and most of the women competing there were tall. There was a few petite and I was really, really thankful that we had some shorties like me in the pageant. That too, was a strike against me. Or I thought, I think I was setting myself up for failure. And we tend to sabotage ourselves all the time. And I was doing that.
  • And I can’t really see without my glasses. Now back then, I didn’t have this wonderful doctor that fitted me for context. So I really literally walked around, blind. I mean, my acuity is 20/200.

So I’m having to mark my spot on the stage, telling the choreographers to wear a Michael Jackson glove, and waving in the air when it’s time for me to move to my next thing. Because I really struggle seeing because I didn’t want to wear my glasses and look like as like a nerd. I don’t know, that’s a little vanity I have in me. Anyway so beautiful event. I’m standing on stage, and I just really just represented a mom, with two kids struggling with a disability.

Touching Hearts

And any parent out there that’s dealing with autism or their child has cancer. I have two children that are got an eye disease, you’re going to they’re going to go blind. I mean, that is for all the parents out there, man. Kudos to you. It’s a tough road.

So I know 100% my winning factor was my ability to touch the hearts of all those people, the judges. I’m a human being and I’m here to really help people. I really know that’s the reason why I won and I’m not chopped liver either.

So I win Mrs. America. I reigned eight months as Mrs. America and my next big adventure is to go on and represent our beautiful nation at Mrs. World. And luckily it was right here in my backyard in Orlando, Florida. I had a whole big group of people and family and friends and that came. Another two weeks of solid competition away from my family and I was blessed with the title of Mrs. World.

I competed against 57 countries, lot of English language barriers, but I had the funnest time because a lot of us couldn’t communicate. Like Mrs. Russia barely speaks English, we had Mrs. Poland, her English was broken. We had Mrs. China, she couldn’t speak a word of English, Mrs. Hong Kong, but a lot of language barrier, but the communication we have between one another was just hilarious. It was really really funny. I had the best time.

Gorgeous, young, tall women and I was wearing these big, big heels underneath my gowns. That was my secret weapon. But once again, 42 now, five, four, and I broke a lot of barriers, winning the title, and I’m now officially the oldest woman to ever win the title of Mrs. World.

Being A Voice For Visual Impairments

So, during my reign, my entire perspective for any appearance that I made, was to be a speaker. Now I’m, I used to be and still am a little bit afraid to speak in front in front of the public, but I knew I was representing my children. I was representing the blind, the visually impaired, anyone that was struggling with sight problems, I was representing the Foundation Fighting Blindness. So it wasn’t about me, it was about me being a voice and helping those and standing up for our community.

I had an amazing three years of reigning almost because the next venue to host Mrs. World kept being postponed, but it gave me more time to spread the word. And now a lot of times when people hear retinitis pigmentosa or hear anything about blindness, they always tell me, April, you’re the first one that I think about. So to know that I made an impact on others because what I did with pageantry had nothing to do with vanity. It had nothing to do with me, April, it had to do with my two kids for first and foremost, and to the world that we represent, which is the blind and visually impaired world.

So it was a wonderful, beautiful experience. It put me on a platform that reconditioned me, made me a public speaker. And now I’ve have an extended career, a moonlighting career outside of my business, I have a marble and granite countertop business with my husband for 25 years. But on the side, I’m now a guest host on television for our home shopping network. I’m an aspiring actress, I have a lot to learn there. Hopefully it doesn’t take me 21 years to make something or you know, book a movie or something that’s my next big goal book a movie or TV show.

But hey, it takes time for me to learn and condition like I had to learn and condition for the 21 years competing in pageantry, then, so be it. I always believed God has a road for each and every single one of us. And we continue to be fighters and warriors.

I consider myself a warrior Mom, I do whatever I possibly can to help fight retinitis pigmentosa for my children. We go and do holistic things like acupuncture, in Westfield, New Jersey with Acupuncture Associates, you know, it works for us. So I’ve been going for the last let’s see, eight, nine years, eight years. My son just was a participant in a gene therapy trial for AGTC. And we can’t share a whole lot but I’m proud that he’s a pioneer in that.

Words Of Advice

So my advice to any of those that are fighting, and you feel alone and you feel depressed, my goodness, I know how you feel. I have a sister now that’s blind, and she went through a long, tough road of depression, giving up her license, having to depend on people to take her and guide her around. She’s in a good place now. She’s learned to accept it. You can’t fight it. You can fight it. But there’s a certain part that you have to learn to accept and actually go with the punches because you will actually fight yourself mentally.

So you got to learn to still love yourself. Love the community that supports you. Like Stephanae has this beautiful community that she showcases, you know, the beautiful blind community because we’re all beautiful, and it starts from the inside out.

So my biggest advice is for all of you to find a community because it really helps your soul and helps you mentally it’s therapy. Believe me the hundreds and hundreds of speaking engagements that I put myself front and center helped me that I’m not struggling as much. I have my moments I do get depressed I do get down when I see my kids, you know having a hard time or hard day. But that therapy is also put my heart in a good place where I have hope.

So learn to find that hope within your family, your friends, social media has a lot of great out you know, groups that you can join. Stephanae’s got this wonderful, wonderful organizations that you can be a part of, and I’m only a click away on Facebook and Instagram if you have a question or you need a chat or talk. I’m always here to share my experiences, share my outlook and help to boost up your morale as well because that’s what we’re all here on earth for to help one another. So thank you for listening to my story.

Connecting With April:

Image Descriptions:

  • The header and Beyond Sight Magazine Cover contain the same photo of April a pretty white woman with dark wavy shoulder-length hair and a dazzling smile is wearing a coral v-neck top.
  • Text on the magazine cover reads “April Lufriu: Advocate, Warrior Mom & Mrs. World”
  • April being crowned Mrs. America. She looks gorgeous in a shimmering gold gown and “Mrs. America” sash.
  • April as the newly crowned Mrs. America is smiling and wavy to the audience.
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