SHU student loses eyesight, gains sense of charity

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Like most teenage guys who are into cars, Joseph Sehwani hoped to one day drive his very own dream car — in his case, a Nissan GT-R.

He longed to hear the purr of the vehicle’s 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, to see the sun glint off the hood’s sleek chrome as he seamlessly handled the dual-clutch transmission. He wanted to feel the power that only a 545 horsepower “supercar” can provide.

But unlike most teenage guys into cars, Sehwani did not have his whole life ahead of him to save enough money to buy his dream car. Midway through high school, he was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy — a rare and incurable disease that causes the optic nerve to atrophy, resulting in a sudden and rapid loss of central vision — meaning he would have mere months to drive any vehicle before becoming legally blind. So his father made his dream come true early, gifting him with a GT-R of his very own.

And though he only had the vehicle for roughly two months before losing his vision, being able to drive his dream car was an experience Sehwani will never forget.

“It was always my dream car, I always liked it,” Sehwani, who is now a management student in his third year at Seton Hall University, told the News-Record in a Jan. 8 phone interview. “It was a lot of fun.”

Sehwani went on to create the Dreamscape Foundation in 2013 as a way of raising money for people struggling with disabilities and for finding a cure to ailments like cancer, HIV/AIDS and his own LHON. Through creative fundraisers like videogame-streaming events and selling computer-generated artwork, the foundation has raised thousands of dollars for various causes. But his foundation’s latest initiative promises to be its biggest and most personal yet.

Inspired by his father’s generous gift, Sehwani and Lynnes Automotive Group in Bloomfield are now hoping to make other car lovers’ dreams come true through the recently-launched DreamCar campaign, a charity raffle in which brand-new Nissan vehicles and leases are up for grabs — all to raise money for LHON research.

Anyone age 16 and older who is interested in participating buys a ticket for whichever vehicle they hope to win at or at Lynnes Nissan West, with prices ranging from $1 for a
24-month Nissan Sentra lease to $20 for the right to own a new Nissan GT-R. When enough money is collected in ticket sales to cover vehicle costs and make a substantial contribution to LHON research, one ticket will be selected; the winner will be given their chosen vehicle, with sales tax and shipping paid, and also receive up to $2,000 toward insurance costs and $800 for servicing. Entrants are limited to purchasing 150 tickets, though they can receive a 20-percent discount for buying five to nine tickets and a 40-percent discount for buying 10 or more.

The winner also has the option of trading in the vehicle for 75 percent of its list price, excluding sales tax.

Since launching in December, Sehwani said the campaign has sold a total of 524 tickets. He said the drawing will probably be held in March. But those who do not win a vehicle then should not be too disappointed — he said he hopes to make the DreamCar campaign a continual fixture of his foundation moving forward.

“It’s giving back in a unique way,” Sehwani said. “As long as we’re giving back to the community and we’re making a difference and people jump on, then I’m happy.”

Julie Tozzo, vice president of Lynnes Auto Group, is happy to give back as well, especially to a cause benefiting LOHN research. Having been diagnosed with the disease a year ago, Tozzo knows firsthand how difficult it is to live without clear vision, describing her eyesight as being so blurry it is as if wax paper is covering her eyes. And she is more fortunate than others, she said, because she is currently taking part in a clinical trial for an injection that has stabilized her eyesight and can also afford visual aids that help her read. She pointed out that many people do not have such options.

Meanwhile, she said very little funding goes into LOHN research because the disease is so rare; according to the official LOHN community website, only about 4,000 Americans are afflicted with it, with an average of 100 people diagnosed every year. And without money, it is difficult for medical advancements to take place. The fact that a young man like Sehwani is working to help the situation is commendable, Tozzo said.

“He’s an amazing, incredible old soul,” Tozzo told the News-Record in a Jan. 11 phone interview. “His (positive) attitude is just like mine, and that’s what makes you grow and rise above adversity. He’s an idol of mine. We both lost our sight, but we didn’t lose our insight into life.”

And the DreamCar campaign is not the only way in which Sehwani is making a difference. Most recently, he said the Dreamscape Foundation collected and donated more than 100 toys to Toys for Tots and raised approximately $750 through a videogame-streaming event for LHON research and the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. And he is far from finished — this young nonprofit founder said he is already planning initiatives for 2016.

In the meantime, Sehwani encouraged people to buy tickets for the DreamCar campaign, pointing out that it is a rare opportunity to make their dreams come true while benefiting a great cause.