HomeNews & PublicationsFeatured StoriesUnplanned Volunteerism Has Unexpected APL Connection 

November 23, 2015

Unplanned Volunteerism Has Unexpected APL Connection

Mistra Moazami and Joe Schissler
APL’s Mistra Moazami, left, reads old letters and documents and assists with other historical research for former Lab staff member Joe Schissler, who lost his sight in a 2009 accident.

Two summers ago, Mistra Moazami was helping her teenage son look for a volunteer opportunity in the community. What she didn’t know was that their search would lead her to a friendship with a cruise missile expert who worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for nearly four decades.

While looking at volunteer opportunities that might fit her son’s interests, Moazami, an assistant group supervisor in APL’s Information Technology Services Department, came across a request for someone to read to a blind person for a couple of hours a week. Her son ultimately decided that it wasn’t for him, but Moazami’s interest was piqued. A man named Joe Schissler was working on a memoir about his father’s long U.S. Navy career, particularly his World War II service. He needed assistance in reading letters and documents that his computer software couldn’t interpret.

Moazami began visiting Schissler on Sunday mornings to help him with his project. It wasn’t long before the two realized their APL connection.

“Shortly after meeting him, I sent him an e-mail from work,” Moazami said. “He said, ‘You work at APL?’”

Schissler had joined APL in 1972 after four years in the Navy and spent decades working on the Tomahawk program. A member of APL’s Principal Professional Staff and a nationally recognized expert in cruise missile weapon control systems, he was approaching 40 years of service at the Lab when a freak accident took his eyesight in 2009.

Schissler was bicycling in his neighborhood, as he did often, when he swerved to avoid some pedestrians and collided with a tree. “You couldn’t reconstruct the accident even if you tried,” he said. The impact was brutal; both of his optic nerves were damaged during the accident and subsequent surgeries, leaving him totally blind.

He had been scheduled to leave the following day on a work trip, but life changed immediately and drastically for Schissler. He spent weeks in the hospital, then months in physical rehabilitation, and years adjusting to being blind.

But he wasn’t going to let the injury force him to quit living the life he had been used to. “I thank my family for helping me through those first many months,” he said. He also sought out resources and enrolled in programs that help people not only adjust to being blind, but also continue doing things that they enjoy as independently as possible.

One of the things Schissler had always hoped to do was research his father’s military career. “For the majority of my life, my father was not in my life,” he explained. “I knew he had served during World War II, and I knew he’d been on a ship that was sunk at Guadalcanal. But I didn’t know much more.”

One of the first skills Schissler relearned after the accident was how to use a computer. He knew the software offered through the Maryland Department of Rehabilitation Services would help him in his research, but he also knew that he would need additional assistance. Many websites are still not accessible for the blind, and the software doesn’t help with printed books and handwritten documents.

That’s where Moazami came in. “Mistra read my father’s personal letters to me. She helped me gather information from books and websites that aren’t accessible. She found photos of the ships my father served on,” Schissler said.

For Moazami, those Sunday mornings became more than just helping Schissler write his father’s history. Over time, she found friendship and inspiration. “Every time I work with him, I discover things that we take for granted,” she said. “Imagine that all of a sudden, you have to start over and learn to do everything again. I put myself in his shoes and I think I would be hopeless. But he just never stops.”

Case in point: Schissler enrolled in a rehab program at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM)—in which students are taught to use public transportation, and to work safely in the kitchen. His graduation assignments were to take a trip from BISM (in Baltimore) to Union Station and back by himself, and to shop, prepare, serve and clean up after a meal for six people. He passed both.

He also decided to get back to one of his favorite hobbies. “I was involved in woodworking for the vast majority of my adult life.  I have a workshop in my basement, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore,” Schissler said. But BISM offered a woodworking class and he quickly knew he would be able to continue this hobby. He has since earned two ribbons at the Howard County Fair—a first-place for a small, decorative table, and a second-place for a full size ladder desk he built for his daughter. He has also recently completed a jewelry box for his granddaughter.

When Schissler was nearing completion on his father’s story, he and Moazami decided to start writing his own story. They are working on that now. To recover the details of Schissler’s time in the Navy, they made two day-long trips to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where they read through the deck logs for every day he spent on a ship in the Navy. “I was able to get my service records, all of the ships I served on, when and where, and Mistra helped fill in the details,” Schissler said. “She did most of the work during these trips, so she deserves my many thanks. I have come to value her as a good friend as well as a helper.”

In addition Schissler is a member of the National Federation of the Blind and is constantly raising awareness for the blind and advocating for accessibility improvements. He has interacted with a number of local and state officials toward these ends.

“I think about his amazing APL career and everything that he has done since then…what he and his wife have gone through and how they’ve figured out how to live this new chapter in their life,” Moazami said. “What keeps me going back is the inspiration, his perseverance, and his love for living a full life despite the situation. He is a very modest person and often minimizes his accomplishments. But he is amazing to me.”

Media contact: Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618, geoffrey.brown@jhuapl.edu