Downers Grove woman inspires with 'Dawn It' mentality to flip challenges into positives
Dawn Maxey dropped her tap cane.
When it fell down a flight of stairs at a training center for adults who are blind, it became a turning point.
The instructor, Maxey remembers, told her she had two choices. She could dig herself an emotional hole and get in, giving up on life and giving in to the attacker whose assault caused her to go blind. Or she could stand up, go get the cane and try again, giving herself a chance at a new life.
It was clear right then, Maxey said, that she had to keep trying to turn around her life and her outlook, to "find something good. Flip it."
To do this eventually became known within Maxey's circle of relatives and friends as to "Dawn It."
Maxey's life was upended by an attack, now 26 years ago in Aurora, when she was working as a postal carrier. A man who was trying to get social security checks beat her as she filled in to take an unusual route on her day off, she said. She didn't even have time to grab her pepper spray.
"That first punch came so fast, it landed me on the floor," Maxey said.
For Maxey, then a 39-year-old mother of two teenagers, life would never be the same without her sight. She knew that right away.
But with the instructor's prodding about the dropped tap cane, she realized it didn't have to be over. She could "Dawn It."
She's since spread the positivity to 80 people for whom she helped secure service dogs when she worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind until her retirement in 2018. And she's spread it perhaps most strongly to her daughter, Michele, who uses her maiden name as a nickname and goes by Maxey Hensley. Hensley and a lifelong friend have started a "Dawn It" Facebook page on which they post examples of Dawn-like perspective shifts on everyday challenges.
"Stubbed toe? Great excuse for a pedicure!" one post reads. "Cut my finger today in a rush to finish lunches," another says. "No dishes for me for a few days, woot woot!"
"Your house could be burning down and my mom would say, 'Well, you didn't like that carpet,'" Hensley said. "Sometimes all you need is that one phrase to help you at the moment."
The "Dawn It" movement -- and all the other elements of Maxey's story of resilience -- caught the attention of Art Van Furniture employees and executives, who named her the Chicago area "superhero," one of six across the nation in a 60th anniversary campaign celebrating the power of inspiration.
The campaign is designed to "show the world in this time of negativity, there's a lot of good in our neighborhoods," said Diane Charles, Art Van's vice president of corporate communications. Employees chose the nationwide superheroes from a field of 77 inspirational heroes, one nominated from the community around each Art Van store.
The hero and superhero awards in total netted Maxey $6,000 in furniture funds for a home makeover, which she spent on a gray leather sofa and matching chair, two upholstered chairs and two ottomans. She expects them to last for decades in her Downers Grove home.
Charles said Maxey giggled as she described her enjoyment in touching the seams of her new furniture, which she'll enjoy but never see.
"Her attitude is so infectious," Charles said. "She inspired me and I only met her for like an hour."
Hensley nominated her mother for the Art Van awards, saying she has inspired dozens of other blind adults across the country as she helped them apply for guide dogs.
Guide Dogs for the Blind, Maxey said, has a school in California where it hosts people who are blind for three-week sessions to learn how to be guided by their new service animals -- all for free. She's gone there four times herself to team up with the guide dogs she's had since losing her sight: Sony, Leah, Noodles, and for the past eight years, J.C. Penney.
Maxey said Guide Dogs for the Blind uses donations to cover all expenses for the people it pairs with service dogs, including meals, travel, training and a special $300 harness with which to hold onto the dog and give it commands.
"The dog knows what's in front of you," Maxey said. "It's not going to let you step into a hole."
Maxey didn't let herself step for long into a figurative, emotional hole after her blindness took hold. And she won't let others take that route, either, her daughter says.
"Not only does she turn your thought process around when the world's going bad, she's helped others do that," Hensley said.
Maxey herself -- like many people recognized as heroes -- downplays her influence, even on others who have dealt with new blindness.
"All I've done is recognize how tough it was in the beginning," she said, "And when I hear that sound in someone else ..."
She steps in and helps them "Dawn It."
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