JeffSheildsBy Brian Walker, Coeur D’Alene

Coeur D’Alene, ID (AP) – What Jeff Shields lost with his sight and hearing, he’s more than gained with his heart and strength.

Nicknamed “Rambo’’ from his days of working in local lumber mills, Shields’ mental and physical toughness has crushed his disabilities of blindness and lack of hearing to the tune of handling up to 450-pound pieces of wood to split for residents in need.

“I get things done,’’ the 50-year-old Coeur d’Alene man said while volunteering for ElderHelp at the nonprofit’s wood yard.

“I don’t expect anything for free; I don’t like handouts. When I grew up, I learned to appreciate everything we got.’’
Shields has Usher syndrome Type 2, a rare and incurable genetic disorder and a cause of deafblindness. He has had limited hearing with the use of hearing aids since he was young. Shields lost his sight several years ago.

The disabilities prevented Shields from working in the mills 17 years ago, which prompted him to volunteer at the Community Action Partnership food bank, Inland Northwest Blood Center and, most recently, ElderHelp for the past seven years.

“My motto is that, if you are disabled or on welfare, you should volunteer at least 20 hours a week in the community unless you are comatose (or other obvious reason),’’ Shields said. “A lot of people buck the system.’’

Shields’ sister Terri and brother Brian, who also has Usher II, both work at the Tesh nonprofit that assists those with disabilities in the workplace.

Shields’ massive build and experience of working in mills is a blessing at ElderHelp’s wood yard, said John Corcoran, who founded the nonprofit in 2005. Shields also assists with organizing the nonprofit’s activities, which also includes home repairs and building wheelchair ramps,

“He’s the guy who volunteers the most,’’ Corcoran said, adding Shields averages about 20 hours per week. “He does not want to be defined as deaf and blind.’’

Corcoran said Shields is a joy to be around due his upbeat spirit.

“I take him to church with me,’’ Corcoran said. “They’re scared of him at Golden Corral (buffet restaurant).’’

Volunteering, Shields says, fuels his motivation.

“I know that I’m helping somebody out,’’ he said. “I want to do something for somebody who needs help worse than I do.’’

Shields, who works out at the Kroc Center, said he bench-pressed 830 pounds 12 years ago and squatted 1,102 pounds. His hands are as tough as leather so he normally doesn’t wear gloves. He tosses large firewood pieces as if they are matchsticks.

Despite using a splitter, chain saw and other equipment, Shields hasn’t been seriously injured at the wood yard other than scrapes and cuts.

“I’ve done this so often (both as a volunteer and working in the mills) that if I ever smash my finger, it’s rare,’’ he said. “I’ve got a system going. It’s hard work, but it’s not rocket science. It’s just repetition work.’’

Shields dropped out of high school when he was a junior and went to work in the mills when he was 16.

“I picked up a double-bladed ax when I was 9 and it’s been a passion ever since,’’ he said.

Shields downplays his service to ElderHelp despite his deafblindness.

“I like to be behind the scenes; I’m not in this for the glory,’’ he said, adding that he doesn’t meet the firewood recipients. “Any glory belongs to the man upstairs. As long as I can help make someone warm and their life easier, that’s all that matters. A lot of work needs to be done and I’m just one pair of hands.’’

Shields said he’s encountered doubters due to his disabilities.

While trying to land a part-time job, Shields said he recently thought he found one as a dishwasher when he proved himself showing what he could do only to be denied the position by upper management.

“He said, `Oh you’re one of those people,’’’ Shields said. “Whatever that means. I guess maybe he had a bad episode with somebody else.’’

Shields likes taking on new tasks to stay sharp.

When he learned that a Strong Man Contest was held during the recent Rathdrum Days, he issued a light-hearted warning.

“I’ll be there next year,’’ he said. “I’ll show how things are done – my style.’’

Corcoran said Shields’ can-do attitude has brought tears to the eyes of ElderHelp’s clients when they hear his story.
Shields said his late mother Jolene, father Larry, wife Diane and others have been his supporting cast along his journey.

“(Diane) is the only one who will tolerate me,’’ Shields joked.

Shields said he intends to continue to volunteer because it gives him a sense of purpose.

“Live or die – one or the other,’’ Shields said. “As long as I’m able to, I’ll continue to do this. I can whine with the best of them, but I refuse to do it.’’

Shields at work recently