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The Leap

From a doctor’s controversial LSD treatments to a mother’s high-risk efforts to recover her abducted child to a punk rock pioneer’s radical career reinvention, these are stories of people making dramatic, risky changes—and the big and small decisions that change the course of lives. Hosted by award­­­-winning journalist Judy Campbell.

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When a Stranger Gives You $125 Million

Subscribe in iTunesDon’t miss an episode of The Leap.Also available via RSS.One morning last year, Bryan Bashin sat down to check his email. One peculiarly short note caught his attention.“A businessman has passed away. I think you might want to talk to us,” it read.Bryan directs a nonprofit in San Francisco called the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, so he gets a lot of email about donations. But this one felt different. It came from a group of lawyers handling the estate of a deceased businessman, Donald Sirkin.When Bryan and the LightHouse’s Director of Development, Jennifer Sachs, checked the LightHouse’s donor database, they found no record of him. Don Sirkin had never donated to the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired before, or used its services.And yet, in his will, Don Sirkin had left almost his entire estate to the LightHouse, with no explanation.In the end, the gift totaled over $125 million, more than 15 times the LightHouse’s annual budget. Bryan believes it’s the largest single gift ever given to a blindness organization.“It’s one of those experiences where time stands still, where you know that every little bit of what you’re experiencing will be engraved in your memory,” Bryan said. “This is the moment that everything is going to change.”He’s 60 years old, tall and almost always smiling. His eyes are cloudy; he walks with a cane. He gives off the impression of being an entirely functional, confident blind person.But this Bryan is a relatively recent incarnation, because for a long time, Bryan didn’t identify as blind at all.“I didn’t say the “B” word,” Bryan said. “Instead I used euphemisms if I had to. I used the lingo of the day: ‘visual Impairment,’ ‘low vision,’ ‘visual challenge,’ that kind of thing.”Bryan’s vision began to falter when he was in his teens, and gradually got worse. By his 20s, he was legally blind. Today, he says he sees the world “as if through wax paper.” He can make out some light and color, but not faces or words.Yet through his twenties and most of his thirties, Bryan squeezed by on the little vision he had, relying on magnifiers and special lamps to read what he could. He memorized the map of his daily route so as to not get lost. He only went out during daylight, to avoid the confusion of navigating in complete darkness.Bryan says that a lot of blind Americans use work-arounds like these. “Most never use a cane, or a dog, or Braille or any of the things that are identifiably blind,” he said. “In the blind community we say we’re in the closet, and it is just like being in the closet in the gay community. You try to pass and you try to be somebody that you’re not.”But as Bryan’s vision declined, these work-arounds became harder to pull off. They were time consuming and exhausting. Finally when Bryan was 38 – his vision at about 10 percent of normal — he realized he couldn’t hide anymore. He decided to learn to be a blind person in public.A friend took Bryan to a local blindness agency that Bryan found dishearteningly shabby. Stuffing was coming out of the chairs. The air conditioners buzzed. The office hadn’t been painted in decades.For Bryan all of this was symbolic. The place lacked dignity. “None of that period made me feel like I could be a cool blind person and do stuff in the future,” Bryan said. “I felt ashamed. I felt confirmed in my suspicion that blindness would be a diminishment of my potential.”But he did get something out of it. He learned how to navigate with a cane. He started learning the technologies that make life vastly simpler for blind people than it was a generation ago: the smart phone, text readers and pocket recorders.And suddenly, everything got easier. For example, using text-to-speech was “vastly quicker” than trying to make out giant letters on a screen.Since then, Bryan’s made it his life’s mission to help other blind people make the leap he did. He got a job at the agency with the ripped up couches. And in 2010, he became the Executive Director of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco.Bryan says that with the right tools and training, blindness can be reduced to the level of inconvenience. “Don’t just hide,” Bryan said. “This is not a tragedy or shame. This is not some kind of deep loss. This is just another side of being human.”Despite enormous technological gains that have made life vastly easier for blind people in the last decade, there are still significant obstacles to independence. The unemployment rate among working age blind people is 50 percent — ten times the national average. Job training is expensive, and learning to live independently as a blind person takes time and resources. It’s often easier to get disability checks than to find and pay for necessary training.“To really master walking around using a white cane,” Bryan said, “that’s two, three, four hundred hours of training with somebody being paid to work with you. Same thing with computers.”Through near constant fundraising, Bryan’s organization has the resources to provide basic services to their clients.But what Bryan wants is bigger than that: a change in how blindness is perceived. He wants to to encourage more blind people to come “out of the closet,” to embrace and celebrate blindness as a difference, and get the skills they need to pursue their ambitions.Now, suddenly, thanks to this mysterious businessman in Seattle, Bryan and the LightHouse are looking at a different scale of ambition.“When you get right down to it, the Sirkin bequest is about … feeling like we can dream and have options and be proud of who we are.”LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is just beginning its strategic planning process, to decide how to spend the Sirkin money, but Bryan has some ideas.One major project – which had begun well before the Sirkin grant – is a new headquarters in San Francisco. The building will have expanded facilities, including a dormitory where blind people can stay while they receive training in blind tech, cane navigation, and other necessary skills.There’s also the idea of a MacArthur Genius type award for blind people who do extraordinary things – say, travel around the world independently, or invent some kind of game-changing tool for blind accessibility.For now, Bryan wants to understand the man behind the donation: This mysterious Seattle businessman, Donald Sirkin, left $125 million to an organization that had never heard of him, with no explanation — just a few legal sentences in a three page will.Last year, to try to reconstruct this man from the dead, Bryan made a trip to Seattle, where Don Sirkin had lived. He took a tape recorder and interviewed everyone he could find who had known Sirkin, including Sirkin’s ex-girlfriend, a half dozen of his colleagues and good friends.The interviews reveal a charismatic, idiosyncratic businessman. Sirkin built a hugely successful insurance company from the ground up. He was on a caloric restriction diet that consisted of large quantities of pomegranate juice and seaweed. He refused to eat in public. His ex-girlfriend Sue Tripp remembers going to a trip to New York with him. But while Sue went to see the Statue of Liberty, Sirkin stayed in the hotel and exercised for hours.Don Sirkin commanded attention. If left too long in a waiting room, he would walk around on his hands to catch the eye of the receptionist, as change and keys flew out of his pockets. He loved a big gesture, handing out hundred dollar bills to his staff after closing on a big client.The interviews also reveal a man estranged from his family. Missing from Bryan’s tapes are Don Sirkin’s children. He had two – a daughter and son. Neither of them wanted to be interviewed. The kids received relatively little from his will: $250,000 apiece, compared to the LightHouse’s $125 million.In May, Sirkin’s daughter Anna sued her father’s estate. Her complaint says that her father hit her and touched her sexually. She says this happened dozens of times. If she wins, she could get a small percentage of what would otherwise go to the LightHouse. Anna told us through her lawyer that she didn’t want to talk to us for this story.As part of the Sirkin bequest, the LightHouse inherited Sirkin’s private residence on the edge of the Puget Sound. Last year Bryan and Jennifer Sachs, the LightHouse’s Director of Development, went to see it.Jennifer recalls that the house was in disrepair. Crows had pecked away at the shingles. The roof was crumbling. And inside, it was packed with stuff: piles of old papers, paintings, plastic clocks stacked on top of each other.What Bryan wanted, of course, were clues. And pretty quickly, he found them.“As we wandered through [Sirkin’s] house,” Bryan said, “we saw all these gadgets: giant light boxes, magnifiers, enormous plasma TVs in his kitchen and throughout his house.” Bryan recognized these clues because he’d used them himself, back when he was trying to hide his blindness.It appeared that Sirkin, too, had lost his sight. He kept it a secret from almost everyone he knew.Instead of getting help, or learning to use a cane, it seems he’d tried to bring his eyes back with special diets, the pomegranate juice and the caloric restriction.Sirkin’s colleagues said in his final years, he became more reclusive than ever. He holed up in his house. In his case, in a little room off the side of his kitchen.In that room, Sirkin’s heart gave out on him. His body wasn’t discovered for days.To Bryan Bashin, Don Sirkin is a black box, a mystery. Estranged from his family, reclusive, even to those who worked with him. A guy who made this dramatic, final gesture– this extravagant gift– to people whom he’d never met.What Bryan found in Sirkin’s home reminded him of his own difficulty in “coming out” as blind. Sirkin couldn’t make the leap Bryan did. Instead, he hid. But he also did something else. He left his entire inheritance to a group of people who could have helped him, but didn’t get the chance.Please consider subscribing to The Leap! You can do that through iTunes or Stitcher. Support for The Leap is provided by


3 Nov 2015

Rank #1

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The Dinner Date

Eileen (Jeremy Raff/KQED)Subscribe in iTunes Don’t miss an episode of The Leap. Also available via RSS. In this episode – our second! – we meet Lisa. Lisa works with Amy and me at KQED (where she produces two excellent series, Truly California and Film School Shorts, both of which you should check out). For the past few years, Lisa’s been watching something unfold within a small, tightly knit group of her friends. What she saw has changed the way she thinks about love, about relationships, and about grief. It all started with a bike ride. Within just a few days, a grim coincidence had left two women in eerily similar straits. Their climb out is a testament to the power of weekly dinner dates, spreadsheets, and sandwiches. Listen to Episode 2 here on our site. Or better yet, subscribe! That way you’ll get a new Leap episode delivered automatically every couple weeks (and make our bosses very happy). The next episode comes out November 3. It’s about a man who is left $120 million by a total stranger, and his quest to understand why. This happened very recently, in San Francisco. The Leap is where you’ll hear about it first. Also: turns out we’ve been talking up a bad email address. Sorry about that. It’s fixed now. Reach Judy and Amy at theleap@kqed.org. Or call us and tell us a story about your leap — good, bad, ugly, whatever. We’d love to hear it. (415)553-8422. Thanks for listening. Judy Please consider subscribing to The Leap! You can do that through iTunes or Stitcher. Support for The Leap is provided by


20 Oct 2015

Rank #2

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The Improbable Transformation of a Punk Pioneer

James Williamson became a punk rock legend as part of the 1970s band The Stooges. He wrote the songs and played guitar on the iconic album “Raw Power,” which changed the course of music. But, a few years into it, he just walked away. He put down the guitar for more than three decades. What did he end up doing? Not what you’d expect. Take a listen. To learn more about Williamson’s troubled musical past, read Kevin L. Jones’ interview with the guitarist on KQED Arts.) Subscribe to The Leap Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in iTunes | RSS | Website Support for The Leap is provided by:


18 Nov 2015

Rank #3

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Caught in a Pipe

Subscribe in iTunesDon’t miss an episode of The Leap.Also available via RSS.It started with a knocking sound, then whispers, then the strange conviction that he could read people’s minds. Frankie wasn’t the first person in his family to feel reality slipping. A decade earlier, his mother saw faces melting, and thought demons were chasing her.In this story, we meet Frankie as he sprints away from his history of mental illness and toward the “normal” life he always wanted. Along the way, we meet a man who got sucked into an underwater pipe, clutching a bag of lobsters.Support for The Leap is provided by


3 Dec 2015

Rank #4

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My Name Is Shawn and I Prefer He

Subscribe in iTunesDon’t miss an episode of The Leap.Also available via RSS.Shawn Demmons is a 50-year-old man now, but when he was growing up, he was Shawna Demmons. Lately we’ve heard a lot of stories about people who, after years in the closet, found the courage to come out as transgender. But for Shawn, courage was never the problem. His leap was a four decade journey to realize he was a man. And then he had to decide just what kind of man he wanted to be.Support for The Leap is provided by


16 Dec 2015

Rank #5

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The Elementary Kool-Aid Acid Test

In the early 1960’s, a psychologist named Gary Fisher carried out a radical experiment on severely emotionally disturbed children at a residential hospital in Southern California. Fisher believed these children’s behavioral problems could be traced back to profound trauma they had suffered in their early childhoods, but had never adequately processed. He thought very large doses of LSD might cure them. Whether Fisher’s experiment was reckless or whether it was heroic depends on how you think about science, and what risks we’re willing to take in pursuit of something groundbreaking.Nancy, a patient at Fairview Developmental Center in the 1960s, before she began LSD treatment with Gary Fisher. (Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections/ KQED)Before treatment, Nancy spent much of her time in restraints, in order to keep her from injuring herself. (Courtesy of Erowid and Gary Fisher's family/ KQED)Nancy, after beginning treatment with Gary Fisher, cutting cake at a birthday party. (Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections/ KQED)After receiving large doses of LSD and psilocybin, Nancy (center) was no longer injuring herself, according to Fisher and Fairview records. (Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections/ KQED)Psychologist Gary Fisher and Nancy. (Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections/ KQED)Fairview psychologist Gary Fisher (far left) and Nancy (center) in the 1960s. (Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections/ KQED)Psychologist Gary Fisher tried LSD for the first time in 1959. (Courtesy of the Fisher family/ KQED)Gary Fisher holding his daughter, Bess. (Courtesy of the Fisher family/ KQED)Fisher and Bess. (Courtesy of the Fisher family/ KQED)Recent photo of Fairview Developmental Center, a hospital for individuals with developmental disabilities. California plans to close this center by 2021. (Courtesy of Fairview Developmental Center/ KQED)Recent photo of a hallway in Fairview Developmental Center. (Courtesy of The Center for Investigative Reporting/ KQED)


11 Apr 2017

Rank #6

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Little Girl Lost

Sunday, Dec. 9, 1984 is a day Beth McGhee will never forget. It’s the day her 3-year-old daughter, Neola, vanished, kidnapped by her ex-husband. As Beth launched into the painful search for Neola, she had no idea how long she would be waiting for her daughter to come home. Or if she would come home at all.Tom and Beth McGhee with their newborn daughter, Neola. (Courtesy of the McGhee family.)Neola. (Courtesy of the McGhee family.)Neola and her father on a beach in Mexico. (Courtesy of the McGhee family.)A school photo of Neola’s elementary class in Mexico (Neola is in the second from bottom row, fourth from the left). (Courtesy of the McGhee family)Teenage Neola. (Courtesy of the McGhee family.)Neola on a visit to Mexico. (Courtesy of the McGhee family.)


15 May 2018

Rank #7

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Out of the Pond

Tesilya Hanauer grew up on a commune deep in a Northern California forest. When she was five, her mother joined a nomadic group of people whose philosophy involved breaking the bond between mother and child. They were called the Shivalila, and they believed that if parental bonds were severed, a communal consciousness might emerge that could eventually transform society. Over the next few years, Tesilya would follow them from California to the Philippines to rural India, hoping always for a glimpse of the mother she once had. Nicholas DePrey composed the music for this piece.Tesilya’s mother, Meredith, in India.Tesilya with a family in India.Meredith, Tesilya’s mother, in the garden at Black Bear Ranch around 1976.Tesilya and her father, Creek, at Black Bear Ranch around 1975.3-year-old Tesilya carrying an infant on her back at Black Bear Ranch.


28 Feb 2017

Rank #8

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An Unorthodox Life

Henny Kupferstein grew up in the Belz sect of ultra-orthodox, Hasidic Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn. From early childhood, she felt like a misfit. After getting married to a virtual stranger at age 18, Henny began secretly rebelling against the confines of her sect. When she was 34, a startling diagnosis would lead her on a dramatic path away from the Belz and everyone she knew, including her four children. You can read about Henny’s work with autistic kids and her book, Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism, on her website. Music for this episode was composed by Nicholas DePrey, Chris Colin, Seth Samuel, and Henny Kupferstein.Henny Kupferstein, age 18, with her paternal grandparents on the day of her engagement. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)Henny Kupferstein concealed by her veil on her wedding day. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)Henny and her husband on their wedding day. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)Henny Kupferstein and her four children in front of the New York Aquarium seven years ago, on the last day that she saw them. Her children were 12, 10, 5 and 15 months at the time. (Henny Kupferstein/KQED)Henny Kupferstein holding a picture of her and her four children in front of the New York Aquarium on the last day she saw them. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)


25 Apr 2017

Rank #9

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Listener Stories – A Boat, a Baby and the Blue Skies of Montana

We’ve been asking for your stories, and on the last episode of Season 2, we highlight three of our listeners’ leaps. Gavin McClurg embarked on a death-defying adventure on the Pacific that changed the direction of his life. Amy Gotliffe decided to adopt a baby as a single mother, an experience that brought her both joy and heartbreak. And, at 58 years of age, Bette Giordano left her husband, her ailing father and her way of life for a journey of self discovery in the West.Gavin McClurg at work on his boat. He has completed nearly two circumnavigations of the globe. (Gavin McClurg/ KQED)Gavin and his first mate, Jody MacDonald, in 2006. (Gavin McClurg/ KQED)Amy Gotliffe lives in Oakland, California. (Amy Gotliffe/ KQED)Amy and Leo River in his nursery. (Amy Gotliffe/ KQED)Amy Gotliffe with baby Leo River. (Amy Gotliffe/ KQED)Bette Giordano at her home in Connecticut. (Bette Giordano/ KQED)Bette Giordano (grey hat) whitewater rafting in Montana. (Bette Giordano/ KQED)Bette in Montana. (Bette Giordano/ KQED)


9 May 2017

Rank #10