OKEECHOBEE — Robert “R.J.” Sandefur has always been a fighter. Weighing only 1 pound, 5 ounces at birth, he was the smallest baby ever born alive, at that time, which was 1979. His eyes had not formed yet; he has cerebral palsy; a quarter size portion of his brain never developed; and he was given only a 2% chance of survival. No one thought he would make it. He spent eight months in the hospital. They thought he might prove to be mentally challenged.
“I proved them wrong,” said Mr. Sandefur. “I remember when I was in the 11th grade, I asked my late mother why I had to prove everything to everyone, and she told me, ‘Son, Let me tell you something. All your life you will have to prove something to people, because you’re always going to have people who will try to tell you you can’t do something, and the only way you are going to prove them wrong is by showing them you CAN do it!’”
His sister, Robin Marker, said she believes everyone has a purpose. “It doesn’t matter how big or how small they are.” She said when he came home from the hospital, it was not like having a normal baby in the house. There are a lot of extra things you have to do for a child who is blind. “A lot of what you learn is by seeing,” she said. “Babies learn by observing. He couldn’t do that. He had to be assisted, to feel, to touch, to taste, to smell, things like that.”
Mr. Sandefur went to public school for kindergarten and first grade, but then went to a school for the blind and deaf in Saint Augustine from second through fourth grade. He returned to the Okeechobee public school system and graduated from Okeechobee High School in 1999.
“I am very proud of the fact that I was the first blind student ever to graduate from Okeechobee High School,” he said. At that time, Jacque Hayes, who was the vision teacher, was talking to the parents of another blind young man. Ms. Hayes told the parents, “I’ve told you about the school in St. Augustine, but before you make a decision, I’d like you to meet a student of mine, who is about ready to graduate. He does math on the Braille writer and uses the computer and finds his way around the campus by himself.” The boy’s mother said, “I won’t believe it until I see it.” Mr. Sandefur did not know any of this was going on, he said, but then, one day Mrs. Hayes walked up and introduced a family to him when he was in class. She asked him to show the boy how to write on the computer, and he did. He showed him the Braille writer and things like that. Then Mrs. Hayes asked him to take the boy’s mother to the office, using his cane, and bring her back again. He did. A friend told him later that he was the mother’s cousin, and as she was leaving the school, she began crying. He asked her why she was crying, and she said, “If that young man can do all those things, then my son can too.”
“I don’t mean this to sound conceited,” Mr. Sandefur said, “but it makes me proud to have paved the way for other blind students.”
Mr. Sandefur said there was a blind woman in Okeechobee before him, who was an inspiration to him. Her name was Tabitha McQueen. “She was extraordinary,” said Mrs. Marker. “She went to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and then to college. She became a teacher. She got married and has children of her own. She broke the mold of what people consider the norm for disabled people. She has a personality where if you tell her no, it’s not an option!”
Mr. Sandefur went on to Indian River Community College, got an AA degree and then went to Florida Atlantic University and got a BA in criminology and criminal justice. Feeling a call to the ministry, he went to Andersonville Theological Seminary in Camilla, Ga. to obtain a Master’s degree and a Doctorate.
Using a program called NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access), Mr. Sandefur is able to use a computer for his studies. He prefers a program called JAWS (Job Access with Speech) for Windows, but it involves a yearly fee, and the other one is free.
A member of the Knights of Columbus, Mr. Sandefur is the “Worthy Lecturer” and during each meeting, he is called upon to teach the Word. He explained, he gives a five to seven minute devotional during this time.
Recently, Mr. Sandefur competed in the Assisted Ramp Bowling division at Special Olympics and was named the Gold Medal State Recipient Champion. He not only enjoys participating in the sport itself, he said. He also enjoys meeting people from all walks of life.
Not long ago, Mr. Sandefur converted from the Baptist faith to Catholicism. He is happier now, he said. “Yes, you can tell people about the Bible, but are you living what you are professing? That’s what I like about being Catholic. The thing I love the most is confession. When you go to confession and say, ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned,’ you are making yourself accountable to someone else for what you have done.” He has a Facebook page set up called, Catholic Inquirers. The group has over 300 members. It’s for people who are interested in knowing more about the Catholic church and faith. People from all over the world are members.
Since 2004, Mr. Sandefur has been using his gifts to fill many pulpits in Okeechobee as he waits patiently on the Lord to direct his steps. He is praying about how God will use him in the Catholic Church.
His sister Robin said she believes everyone should wake up each day and actively look for the blessings God has put in their paths. “We need to look for the good in everybody, people’s true characters, not what is on the outside. Someone might be brilliant, but be overlooked, because of what’s on the outside. Don’t overlook God’s blessings.”