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A sense of touch: Massage therapist can't see, but his hands 'can feel the knots'

Robert Guerrero, who is a blind massage therapist, gives Katie Ronkainen of Superior a massage on a recent morning at La Peinado Salon in Superior, where he works. Because of his vision loss, he changed careers with the help of people at the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Robert Guerrero, who is a blind massage therapist, massages Katie Ronkainen's back at La Peinado Salon in Superior recently. Clients say Guerrero has an ability to find "the knots." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Robert Guerrero works out the knots in Katie Ronkainen's back during a massage. A former baker, Guerrero trained as a massage therapist after injuring his back in a fall. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

When Lila Hickok first met an applicant for a massage therapist position at her Superior salon, she was taken aback.

Actually, "shocked" was her word.

"I mean, I could tell he was blind right away because he had his cane," recalled Hickok, who owns La Peinado ("The Hairdo") at 2802 Tower Ave. "And I thought, 'Holy moly, this is going to be something.'"

Four and a half years later, Robert Guerrero, 66, still is massaging clients four days a week at the Southwestern-themed salon. He's patronized by customers who go back further than that and who swear by him for his kindness and skill.

"You can maybe go for an hour massage, but you're going to get more than that," said Debbie VanGuilder, 61 of Duluth, who sees Guerrero weekly. "He really cares about his people. He calls the next day to ask how you're feeling."

Gail Paulus of Munger said she needed a stronger touch for her arthritis pain than she'd gotten from other masseuses. "But Robert, because he's blind, I think he has this extra quality that he can feel what's going on inside your body, and he can feel the knots."

Paulus, who at 78 describes herself as the oldest belly dancer in Duluth, tries to go to Guerrero monthly, she said.

"He's just the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met," she said. "He's a big bear. But to me, he's a marshmallow."

Leaving San Antonio

Guerrero has had to reinvent himself more than once since losing his eyesight at age 30 in his native San Antonio. He will say little about what happened. "Things were getting bad down South," he said. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

As the oldest of his 10 children started to reach their teen years, Guerrero decided he wanted them to be in a more sheltered environment. A relative found them a home in rural northwestern Minnesota.

"The nearest neighbor was five miles away," he said. "There's no way (the kids) could get into trouble."

Guerrero generated income by providing child care in his home, he said. But when his kids were grown and with his marriage falling apart, he decided he wanted to expand his skill set. He checked out a school for the blind in Minneapolis but didn't want to return to a big city. So he chose the Lighthouse Center for the Blind (now the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss) in Duluth.

His first goal was a GED.

"I didn't get a chance to go to school" before, he said. "I went to 11th grade, then I had to drop out to work."

After he achieved the GED, the Lighthouse Center helped Guerrero enroll at Duluth Technical College, the precursor to Lake Superior College. Already an experienced cook with a Texas-sized enthusiasm for spices, he graduated from the commercial baking program there.

He had a job offer to be a baker for Northwood Children's Services, but it almost was withdrawn when the supervisor realized he was blind, Guerrero said.

"I said, 'Well, I tell you what,'" he related. "'Give me two weeks in your kitchen, let me learn it, and let me do some baking for you. And if you don't think I'm capable and think that I might hurt someone, I'll leave. But at least I'll thank you for giving me the opportunity.'"

He was there for eight years.

Like beating dough

A fall ended Guerrero's baking career. No longer able to lift 50-pound sacks of flour because of his injured back, he went back to Lake Superior College, starting with general education classes. A friend suggested he enroll in the school's one-year massage therapy program.

"He said, 'Yeah, remember you used to beat the dough? Why don't you beat bodies now?'" Guerrero explained.

As with the baking job, he had to talk his way into the massage therapy program, using the same two-week gambit.

He succeeded, making the dean's list both semesters and being named massage therapy student of the year in 2006.

He soon found that what he had seen as a job had become a calling, Guerrero said.

"I really love healing people," he said. "To me it's not about the money, because I don't make a lot of money."

Lesley Lenox of Duluth first encountered Guerrero at Midtowne Manor in Lincoln Park, where Guerrero was offering massages for tips, she said. She had an office job there and asked for a quick massage during a break for her sore traps — trapezius muscles in the shoulders.

"I thought, 10, 15 minutes," she said. "Well, I know I was in the chair an hour. He looked at it and he said, 'Well we can't do anything about the traps until we fix some other things that are going on.'"

Lenox became a friend and a booster. It was Lenox who spotted the job opening at La Peinado and suggested that Guerrero apply.

'So good and kind'

Hickok said it took only a short time for Guerrero to find his way around the salon and to become like family to his 20 female co-workers. Only one customer declined a massage from him — most likely because he was a man, not because he was blind, she said.

His clients include men as well as women, Guerrero said, although the first time around the men might have to be talked into it by wives or girlfriends.

Some women may find it advantageous to have a masseuse who can't see them, Hickok said.

"If a woman is a little bit, oh ... unhappy with her body, for example, she feels comfortable because Robert can't see her," she said. "And we've had some large people, and Robert is so good and kind, and he makes everybody feel comfortable about themselves."

He fits into a bigger picture, Guerrero said, a turning away from dependence upon medicine to relieve pain. At one time, he was hooked on Lortabs himself, he said, taking five pills a day before weaning himself down to one a day, and then one-half pill when needed and then finally eliminating it entirely.

There often are better alternatives, he said. Massage is one such alternative.

"People need this," Guerrero said. "They just don't understand. They'd rather go to the doctor and get a pill."

Guerrero has worked hard to hone his skills, Lenox said. But there's an intangible that gives him an edge when it comes to relieving pain.

"He just knows where to go. Intuitive, maybe?" she mused. "He just figures things out so well as to why you're hurting ... and what's causing it. Maybe because he's blind he can feel the muscles better than someone else who has sight? I don't know.

"But he's very good."

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About Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss

Robert Guerrero is one of many people who have gotten a boost from Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in its 99-year history.

The nonprofit at 4505 W. Superior St., formerly known as Lighthouse Center for the Blind, serves more than 1,500 people annually, said its executive director, Mary Junnila.

“There are people who come to the center for months of full-time training to learn the whole set of services that are needed to live and work independently,” Junnila said. “And that includes emotional adjustment to blindness. It includes daily living skills. It can include braille and technology. … Or it ranges all the way down to somebody who maybe just stops into the store for a device.”

Lighthouse Center is one of only three such institutions in Minnesota, Junnila said, with the others both in the Twin Cities. But the widest array of services is offered in Duluth, she said.

“We’re the most comprehensive center in the state in that we now have low-vision optometrists, low-vision occupational therapists, a store and then all of the traditional things in the blindness field,” Junnila said.

But many people who could benefit from help are missing out, she said. National data show that less than 10 percent of people who could benefit from such a facility ever receive those services.

Services are often paid for through State Services for the Blind or are billed to medical insurance, she said. “People should not think that money is an issue because there’s probably a source of funding.”

The center also is the home of the largest program in the state for “transition-age youth” (ages 14-21) with vision loss, Junnila said. Young people from all over Minnesota will be coming to Duluth for a weekend camp in April.

Whom to call

Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss, (218) 624-4828

State Services for the Blind, (218) 723-4600