The Sound of Sight

A blind college student plays the saxophone to raise money for charity.

Dec. 14, 2007 — -- Not many people can say they have perfect pitch. But one man is taking his gift of pitch to the next level. Paul Ruffner, a junior at American University in Washington, D.C., has decided to use his talent to give back to a world in which he has struggled.

Ruffner has been playing charity concerts with his saxophone since September to raise awareness and money for large swaths of West Africa that were devastated by massive flooding in late summer 2007. But Ruffner has been fighting a problem that he can't even see.

He is blind -- and has been blind since birth.

"Being someone who needs and uses services, I think it is important to give back," he said. "If everyone neglects answering the call to service, then that effort is drastically scaled back."

Ruffner said he got involved in the relief effort over the summer while teaching at a language immersion camp for children. Ruffner was teaching Spanish, and his French-speaking colleagues, many of whom have families in the devastated African region, asked him to play at these charity concerts.

"The average American citizen is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur, but what can be done with this flooding is having a great impact through grass-roots efforts," Ruffner said.

It takes only a few dollars to purchase mosquito netting and repellant, which can substantially reduce the spread of diseases like malaria, which is common after flooding, he said.

Ruffner seems to have developed a special relationship with music, which he uses to express the things he cannot see, and often uses it to connect with his world in ways others often cannot imagine.

"It's almost a religious type of feeling -- a spiritual sort of feeling [playing music]. John Knox, a Protestant reformer ... had a saying that when one plays music, one is essentially praying twice," he said.

The marriage between music and charity seemed only natural for him, he said.

Aside from Ruffner's musical abilities, his friends call him admirable.

"He's never let his blindness get in the way of anything he's wanted to do," Kevin Carter, Ruffner's fraternity brother, said. "I think Paul relishes these challenges, whereas others would struggle with such adversity."

Ruffner has a 3.88 GPA, is fluent in Spanish, and majors in international politics and Latin American studies. He is from Prescott, Ariz.