The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005

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Introducing the National Center for Mentoring Excellence

by Amy Phelps

Amy Phelps

Amy Phelps

From the Editor: In October of 2004 the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute received a five-year model demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration to develop a mentoring excellence program. As a result the National Center for Mentoring Excellence was established to design, develop, implement, and evaluate a comprehensive national mentoring program to connect young blind people with successful blind adults. The mentors must demonstrate good skills of blindness, incorporate an exemplary philosophy of blindness in their daily lives, and be or have been successful in their careers.

Louisiana and Nebraska were chosen as the demonstration states to begin the program this fall. The National Center for Mentoring Excellence has partnered with the Louisiana Center for the Blind and the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired to establish best practices in mentoring.

Following the five-year project, the National Center for Mentoring Excellence will be able to work with state vocational rehabilitation agencies and NFB affiliates to develop effective mentoring programs throughout the country. A curriculum-based training package will be available to provide step-by-step instruction on how to screen and match mentors and mentees, monitor the mentoring relationship, and replicate a successful program to nurture blind young people.

Amy Phelps, MS, MA, CRC, NOMC, has been appointed coordinator of mentoring and outreach projects at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. On Saturday, July 2, 2005, she described this exciting new mentoring initiative to those attending a daylong rehabilitation conference titled “The Rehabilitation Revolution: Our History, Current Challenges, and the Future.” What follows is the slightly modified text of that address:

“A lot of people have gone farther than they thought they could because someone else believed in them.” This quote, often attributed to Zig Ziglar, is the substance of mentoring and is fundamental to the National Federation of the Blind.

Mentoring, one of our foundations, is an essential element in our mission statement, which reads, “The mission of the National Federation of the Blind is to achieve widespread acceptance and understanding that the real problem of blindness is not loss of eyesight but public misconception and lack of information. We do this by bringing blind people together to share their successes, to support each other in times of failure, and to create imaginative solutions.” This essential activity of the National Federation of the Blind is mentoring.

Long before the NFB was established in 1940, blind youth were being mentored. The young, blind Newel Perry, precursor of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and his teacher, was mentored by Warring Wilkinson, whom Dr. Jacobus tenBroek in “Newel Perry--Teacher of Youth and Leader of Men” described as a pathfinder--a mentor--for Perry. As a result of the mentoring relationship Newel Perry experienced, he continued the tradition by educating blind people to awareness of their capabilities as individuals and of their powers as a group. Inspired by Newel Perry, Dr. tenBroek established the National Federation of the Blind and established the legacy of mentoring in the Federation itself.

The mentoring tradition continues today. Last summer the NFB held its first Science Academy, igniting the interest of blind youth in science, introducing them to blind role models who are successful in their chosen careers, careers often considered unrealistic for blind people. The mother of a Science Academy participant sent us a letter in which she said, my son “… met successful blind people…. He found out that they had challenges and how they dealt with them…. He saw them as real [blind] people who were living normal lives…. All of this seems to have given him what he needed to really feel okay about himself … now with total confidence he faces problems, figures out how to solve them, and does so with gusto. He has an I-can-do-it attitude and is confident he can lead a good life.” This attitude is the direct result of mentoring.

Could the newfound attitude of this young man and his mother have occurred without the benefit of mentors? Most definitely. It happened before 1940, and it occurs every day. But without mentoring the percentage is small, the positive results few. Do we want to rely on happenstance for future generations of blind youth? Do we want future generations to spend the majority of their time reinventing the wheel? Do we want confidence and an I-can-do-it attitude to come only as the result of an accident?

During the 2005 national convention in Louisville, Kentucky, we witnessed mentoring occurring daily and even hourly. We saw our leaders and members who were mentored by Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan mentoring the youth of today. Mentoring, which is central to the National Federation of the Blind legacy, will remain strong and powerful, but in order for this to happen we must make certain that all blind youth and young adults come into contact and have mentoring relationships with positive adult blind role models.

In October 2004 the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute received a five-year grant from the Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration to establish the National Center for Mentoring Excellence. We will demonstrate what we in the NFB have always known--that if blind people are encouraged, empowered, and supported, they will realize their goals; they will soar beyond the expectations of society. While soaring, the most successful blind adults will in their turn inspire the blind youth of today, each generation doing for the next. So we will not need to reinvent the wheel of success--the wheel that rolls forward to freedom.

The difference between the mentoring of the past and the mentoring of the future will be the key to our success. No longer will future generations have to sit in their homes or schools pondering how to lead successful lives as blind people. Through mentoring relationships blind youth ages sixteen to twenty-six will be matched with successful blind adults based on the goals of the blind young adult, common interest, and geographic location. Each participant--the young adult and the adult mentor--will agree to a two-year commitment, maintaining weekly contact through telephone or email and monthly face-to-face meetings, forging a relationship that will be both rewarding and fun. Over the course of the next five years, the National Center for Mentoring Excellence will document the value of mentoring.

With this research-based documentation we will demonstrate to the state vocational rehabilitation agencies that mentoring will increase not only the coveted timely successful closures but also the incidence of postsecondary education and community integration--more blind people will go to college and get jobs. Most important, as a direct result of mentoring, blind people will no longer have to settle for mediocre, unimportant, dead-end jobs; they will seek innovative employment with substantial pay, jobs with more challenge, more fun, and more money.

The mentoring relationship may occur in many ways and through various activities. The mentor and mentee may decide they would like to spend time together hanging out in the mall or at a sporting event, or in some instances the mentee may want to learn the specifics of a particular career or activity. There are no hard and fast rules about how or when the mentoring relationship will take place, except that it must be fun and purposeful for both the mentee and the mentor. Most important is that blind youth begin to realize their potential and see the importance of knowing other successful blind people such as those in the National Federation of the Blind.

Periodically the mentors and mentees in each of the initial demonstration states of Louisiana and Nebraska will come together in small groups or as one large group to learn more about the business of blindness. The mentors will teach the youth the skills and attitudes that lead to success. Having been mentored by successful blind adult role models, the blind youth will realize that blindness can truly be reduced to a mere inconvenience and that a group of people believes in them and their potential.

In five years the National Center for Mentoring Excellence will document the success of over one hundred formal mentor/mentee relationships developed in four to six states and the necessary training curricula and materials needed to establish effective mentoring programs. These materials, along with the support of the National Center for Mentoring Excellence, will be available to entities such as state vocational rehabilitation agencies and local affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind who want to establish formal mentoring programs. The information available will be based on best practices in mentoring, coupled with the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.

Consider your role in mentoring. Can you recall a time in your life when a person believed in you so much that the dreams you once thought impossible became a reality? If you are able to identify a person in your life who served as your mentor, the best way to pay him or her back is to consider the following quote by Sir Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Make a life for yourself by mentoring someone. Create the future of the National Federation of the Blind and help future generations of blind youth and young adults fulfill their dreams. Become a mentor or encourage a blind youth to participate in a mentoring relationship.

Eleanor Roosevelt once posed the question: “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” For the blind of generations past, this question was never a consideration. Blind people were not encouraged to dream beyond the expectations established by the medical profession, the education system, and the rehabilitation professionals. These expectations were minimal at best. Poor attitudes about blindness and low expectations were often accepted and internalized, leading generations of blind youth and young adults to accept unrealized dreams and hopes as their reality. Now, as a direct result of a formal mentoring relationship, this question will become commonplace for blind youth and young adults and will be answered simply and forthrightly, “Because I was mentored by someone who believed in me and encouraged me to live a life as though I could not fail. I know there isn’t anything I can’t do.”

In the movie The Emperor’s Club, William Hundret, played by Kevin Kline, is an idealistic prep school teacher attempting to redeem incorrigible students. In the movie the teacher stops a young man who is tromping across the grass instead of taking the obvious paved walkway. He asks the young man if he can define the word “path.” The young man puzzles over the question and indicates several probable definitions. Mr. Hundret asks if he believes that one possible definition is "a route along which someone or something moves." Stammering, the young man agrees that this definition is a possibility. Mr. Hundret gives the young man advice that defines mentoring and the National Federation of the Blind. He says, “Follow the path; walk where the great men before you have walked.”

If competent blind adults become part of a formal mentoring relationship, no longer will future generations have to reinvent the wheel or trample through the grass of life, uncertain of their future or destiny. As a mentor you can guide future generations to follow the path and to walk where the great men and women of the National Federation of the Blind have walked before and continue to walk--the path to freedom, empowerment, and an I-can-do-it attitude.

For more information about the National Center for Mentoring Excellence, contact Amy Phelps, Coordinator, Mentoring and Outreach, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; <http://www.nfb.org/nfbrti/mentoringproject.htm>; phone (410) 659-9314, extension 2295; email <aphelps@nfb.org>.

For information about the mentoring program in Louisiana contact Norma Crosby, Louisiana Center for the Blind, 101 South Trenton, Ruston, Louisiana, 71270; phone (318) 251-2891; toll-free (800) 234-4166; email <crosbyn@lcb-ruston.com>.

For information about the mentoring program in Nebraska contact Carlos Serván, Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 4600 Valley Road, Suite 100, Lincoln, Nebraska 68510; phone (402) 471-8104; toll-free (877) 809-2419; fax (402) 471-3009; email <cservan@ncbvi.state.ne.us>.

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