The Braille Monitor November, 2003
A New Beginning
by Al Spooner
Al Spooner (right) works with Kotumu Kaamara from Liberia at a computer station.
From the Editor: Contrary to what Al Spooner says in the opening line of the following article, it has been almost five years now that he has been a Federationist. From the moment he joined a chapter, he was a leader. I remember answering his questions in the meeting of the Public Relations Committee at his first national convention, which took place in Atlanta. He was obviously a bundle of energy and ideas. He was also alight with what he was discovering about the potential of blind people, and he was determined to kindle everyone whose life he could touch. I thought to myself that, if we could place an Al Spooner in every chapter of the organization, we would be a household word in no time.
I can't tell you why this story has sat in my computer for a year. In part the answer is that it is timeless, so it got displaced by time-sensitive pieces. The details of the Al Spooner story are unique to his life, but the truth it expresses is truly universal. This is what he says:
I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for the last three-and-a-half years. Over this time many friends and strangers have asked why I dedicate so much of my time to a nonprofit organization such as ours. After all, we don't get paid for our efforts. I hope this article will provide an explanation--only one of many--for being an active participant in this organization.
At the age of forty, and after twenty years of being a productive, tax-paying citizen, I became blind. At the time this seemed an almost insurmountable loss, but mustering a positive attitude, I told myself that life wasn't over quite yet but had just changed course, so I tried to remain optimistic. I enrolled in the Idaho Commission for the Blind training program in Boise to learn about the alternative techniques that blind people use. I was told that I could perform on the job by using these new blindness skills.
One month after completing my training, I met the National Federation of the Blind. I attended a state convention in Pocatello, Idaho. I told them my dream of becoming a teacher. Over most of my previous career I had sold computers and developed and taught computer classes to many of my customers. During that time I discovered how much I enjoyed teaching. In fact, I remember telling many of my customers that, if I ever got a chance to start over, I would be a teacher.
The people I met at this convention not only encouraged me with their positive spirit but backed it up with money in the form of a scholarship. I was excited to find other blind people who shared the same positive philosophy as I had espoused before my blindness. I truly wanted to believe that they were right and that my future could still be bright.
That summer I attended my first NFB national convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Words cannot describe the variety of emotions I felt as I met the people at this convention. I was greatly encouraged, yet overwhelmed. I found blind people from all walks of life who were successful in a multitude of careers, people with personal goals and a purpose for their lives.
I met people my age and in similar circumstances. They were receiving scholarships and moving ahead with their lives. I was assured that my blindness did not have to be a limitation and that, if I applied myself and worked hard, I too could succeed. I entered college that fall with new hope and much higher expectations of myself.
The National Federation of the Blind put its money where its mouth was, so to speak, by awarding me a second state scholarship the next year and selecting me as a recipient of a national scholarship, which I received at the NFB national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This convention totally changed my life.
By this time I had helped organize a local chapter for which I served as president, and I had recently been elected second vice president of the NFB of Idaho. In other words, I was not merely a member, but an active member--there is a difference.
During this national convention I had the opportunity to meet many of the most successful blind people in this nation. I discovered that they were ordinary people like you and me, but with one unique difference--their attitude. An entire book could probably be written about what this attitude entails. Suffice it to say they live the truly successful and independent lives that we all strive for as blind people. Most important, however, these were people whose opinions and advice I knew I could trust. They seemed to believe in me more than I believed in myself.
Now let us fast forward through the next year of fundraising, chapter meetings, state board meetings, college classes, working with Congress in Washington, D.C., hosting the NFB of Idaho state convention in my home town, and other NFB activities too numerous to mention, to the 2002 NFB national convention, held in Louisville, Kentucky.
Just like the previous two national conventions I had attended, new and exciting experiences aplenty bombarded me. It seems obvious to me now that each national convention is unique, and one comes away with new ideas, attitudes, friendships, and a better understanding of our cause and oneself. At this convention, however, I came away with something even greater, a job offer. I was approached by BLIND, Inc., of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which offered me a position as the computer instructor at its training center for the blind--in other words, teaching computers. For me this position is a dream come true, because computers are my forte, and teaching has been my career objective.
Why do I tell you all of this? Well, I believe it was my own active participation in the National Federation of the Blind that created this opportunity. I had a choice when I joined the Federation: I could sit on the sidelines and shout the hoorays, or I could become actively involved. I chose the latter. By doing so, I met and became friends with others who are intentional in changing what it means to be blind. These people in turn learned about me and my strengths and experience. More important, however, they encouraged and motivated me by their own attitudes and abilities.
Some might say that I just got a lucky break or that I just knew the right people at the right time. I would respond, yes, I did know the right people at the right time, but it wasn't luck. I simply played an active role, as any member of the NFB can and should. I sought out opportunities in the organization that capitalized on my skills.
Others might say that I had an advantage because I was a national scholarship winner. This is also true. I met a lot of people this way. However, I discovered at my very first convention that, if I simply introduced myself to any of the state presidents or other leaders in this organization, they were warm, friendly, and excited to meet new people. In other words, finding and making the most of opportunities in the Federation takes more than words; it takes action.
Simply put, become actively involved in the NFB, seek opportunities that can use your God-given talents and abilities, and you will create your own lucky breaks in life. These breaks may or may not come from within the NFB, but active involvement in the Federation will give you more confidence and a better attitude about your own abilities. This change in you will be noticed by others, including future employers.
For me these changes have created a new beginning in my life. I say it that way because I don't look at my opportunity as a destination, but as a success in my life that will only create greater opportunities for me to grow and develop.
As my good friend and president of the NFB of Idaho, Larry Streeter, once told me, "The NFB is not just a philosophy; it is a way of life." I believe this, and the sooner every blind person understands this truth and believes it, the sooner we can all rise to the level of success each of us desires. By living this philosophy, we can and will change what it means to be blind.