Braille Monitor                                                                                 February 2006


Ice Cream, Peanuts, Popcorn, and Worms

by Kevan Worley

From the Editor: Many Federationists know Kevan Worley. He is first vice president of the NFB of Colorado and president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. In May of 2005 he was the Grim Reaper outside the Department of Education building in our demonstration to preserve rehabilitation in this country. In December of 2003 he was Santa Claus encouraging picketers outside the so-called summit meeting organized by the National Accreditation Council in Tampa, Florida. And of course he is a frequent contributor to NFB publications. The following story is reprinted from Beyond the Funny Tree, the twenty-ninth in our Kernel Book series. It is particularly interesting because it clearly illustrates the sort of imaginative, irrepressible person Kevan is. Here is Kevan's story, beginning with President Maurer's introduction:

Kevan Worley

Today Kevan Worley is a successful businessman with four dozen employees. Yet there was a time when—despite a wonderfully nurturing childhood filled with rich and colorful experiences—he felt that the world held no bright future. Here is how he tells his story:

Looking back on my life, it seems I was destined to be in business. As early as I can remember I was selling something. Born almost totally blind due to a brain injury, my parents raised me pretty much as they brought up their other children. There was time for play, time for chores, time for church, time for homework, and plenty of time to just be a kid. My parents tried their best to find special schooling to give me the education they felt sure a blind person would need. But many times they just did not know what to do or where to send me for the best education.
For one thing Dad was in the army, so we moved around a lot. For another, information was pretty scarce, and Mom tells me what there was of it tended to be pretty doom-and-gloom or contradictory. She and Dad had trouble reconciling in their minds how the professional educators could say to them: “A blind child needs lots of extra help in order to succeed in life. But even with all of our extra special help and attention, don’t expect much.” Adding to their confusion, Mom and Dad saw a pretty normal, active, inquisitive, rambunctious child.

When I was four, my parents sent me to the Easter Seals preschool program only a few blocks from our home. Clang, clang, clang, I would bang on the iron railing leading to the front door of the school, bouncing up and down the walk with a child’s boundless energy. “Ice cream, get your ice cream here. Chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla. I’m the ice cream man,” I would say. Usually one of the teachers or other children would play along and hand me a pretend nickel for the best pretend ice cream cone in our little town.
I have always been active, energetic, imaginative, and playful like that: part dreamer, part schemer. It must have been natural for the preschool teachers to dub me their little ice cream vendor, to serve as poster child for Peanut Days. In those days they would sell bags of peanuts to raise money for the preschool. There I was—Mr. Peanuts.

It’s funny what I remember and what I don’t, but I probably didn’t mind going to the luncheon and press conference festivities to kick off Peanut Days. The newspaper article my mother has saved says that I told everybody, “Buy peanuts.” But all I really remember about being Mr. Peanuts was that I got to ride in Mrs. Jameson’s big Buick with the bubbly plastic seats. I remember I cried about something at the luncheon, and Mrs. Jameson bought me a real chocolate ice cream cone on the way home.

My next foray into business, after selling pretend ice cream cones and serving as Mr. Peanuts, occurred when I went away to the residential school for the blind in Jacksonville, Illinois. At recess, those of us in first and second grade were allowed to go back to the dorm and play. There was a Pepsi machine in the kitchenette off the basement, and you could buy a soda pop for a dime.

There was a little gate with a hook latch as you entered the kitchen. I figured out that I could lock the gate from the inside and play soda clerk. Well, I kinda also figured out that some of the kids would hand their nickels and dimes over the gate, and I could sell soda from that machine for fifteen cents. Okay, I’m not proud of it, but I could actually pocket an extra nickel from some of my classmates. I guess I was a real soda jerk.

One winter afternoon in the third grade our cottage mother taught us how to make peanut butter cookies. It was a simple recipe, and I made dozens and dozens of cookies. I reasoned that, if I thought they were tasty, so would others. I bagged them up and went all over campus from the powerhouse to the high school girls’ dorm selling peanut butter cookies.

At that time, at that school for the blind, the expectations for us were pretty high. We were expected to be normal kids and to learn Braille if we had little or no vision. We were encouraged to play on the playground, to run the track, and to jump on the trampoline. Basketball, pogo sticks, stilts, scooters, tandem bicycles, red rover red rover, red light green light, and hide-n-go-seek played late into the evening are all part of my childhood memories.

We were also expected to participate in the normal family-like cottage activities such as making peanut butter cookies. We were also expected to empty our wastebaskets, police the yard, clean up our rooms, and make our beds. Well now, that was my next opportunity.

I realized that some of the younger children, and those at our school with additional disabilities, were having trouble making their beds. So I got the cottage parents to pay me to help them. As I got older, I was making about fifteen beds a day. By the time I reached the fifth grade, I had taught even some of the severely mentally challenged children how to make their beds quite well. But since I was being paid per bed, it worked out well for me. Of course I liked the money, but I also liked the challenge, the work, and the good feeling of teaching and the role modeling for others.

That next summer my brother Paul and I wanted to go to Scout camp. Mom and Dad said, “The only way you boys are going to Scout camp is if you find a way to pay for it.” What to do? There wouldn’t be any beds to make until I returned to school back in Illinois in the fall.

We were living on an army base in Germany, and I couldn’t think of any way to earn enough money to go to Scout camp—until one day Mom asked me to pop some popcorn. I always liked cooking peanut butter cookies, grilled cheese sandwiches, or Chef Boyardee pizza from a box. I loved to cook, and Mom always encouraged me. We didn’t have a popcorn popper, so I put a little oil in a hot skillet, dumped in some kernels, put on the lid, and shook the pan back and forth on the burner.

Hey, I thought, this popcorn smells good as I emptied the first batch into the bowl. I wondered if the GIs in the barracks would buy this popcorn for a quarter a bag. I looked under the sink, and sure enough, Mom had some small paper bags. So I popped up about a dozen bags, twisted them closed, put them in a big plastic trash bag, and convinced my younger brother Paul to go off with me and peddle popcorn. I bet we were hard for the young troops to resist—a couple of little kids hustling still warm popcorn for only a quarter, “And after all, we need the money for Boy Scout camp, sir.”

It was a pretty good deal too, because Mom never charged us for materials. Believe it or not, over the next three weeks we made the $250 we needed to go to camp. I earned several merit badges and my mile swim badge; and hey, guess what, there was a little snack counter at camp, and I convinced the Scoutmaster to let me work the counter a time or two. Surprise, surprise.

The next spring we lived in Connecticut, where my brother, little cousin, and I sold worms. Yep, worms. My aunt’s house was on the way to a popular lake, so we put up a sign by the road that said, “The best fishing worms three boys can dig.” Sales were slow our first weekend, so I called up the newspaper and said: “Do you know that three boys are in the worm business?”

The paper came out and did a story on our little venture, and the next Saturday we sold out. I don’t know what was more fun for a twelve-year-old boy: digging up the yard; finding and extracting the big, long, mud-encrusted worms; chasing my cousins around the house with one; setting up the stand and packaging the worms for sale; doing the newspaper interview and then having it actually appear in the weekly paper along with our pictures; or earning the twenty-one dollars.

Throughout high school I was always the chairman of the bake sale, hot dog sale, or candy bar sale to raise money for the class project, class trip, track, wrestling, or drama club. When it was my class’s turn to manage the snack counter for sporting events, I was always the guy who did the ordering and set up the counter, even though sometimes I was also a participant in the track or wrestling events. I must have developed some ethics since the second grade, because I never once pocketed an extra nickel. The profit always went to the projects for which they were intended. Even though growing up, my dream was always to be a radio broadcaster, I guess it’s not surprising that I ended up building a career in retail food service.

I currently have about forty-eight employees and operate a military dining facility under contract to the United States Air Force. I also own a little convenience store as well as a small deli and a cafeteria in a state building in downtown Denver. But I couldn’t have done any of this without loving parents and family who always allowed me to be me. Growing up, I was blessed with siblings, grandparents, and aunts and uncles who allowed me to be a kid.

Sometimes my parents and family were confronted by people who tried to limit my participation in normal activities because I was blind. But mostly my family ignored them or found ways around them, like the time some neighborhood parents got together and came to my father to tell him that he shouldn’t be letting me ride a bike.

Another time my army sergeant father was rebuked by a colonel because my dad made me take out the trash. Once my aunt and uncle were told by a Sunday school teacher that I shouldn’t be promoted to the next class. And there was also a time a Boy Scoutmaster wanted to give me a merit badge for a project I hadn’t fully completed. Of course my dad wouldn’t hear of it.

I was fortunate to have house parents and teachers at the school for the blind who tried to help me gain the independence I would need to succeed. They taught me Braille, English, math, literature, and science. They also taught me to feel good about myself for the most part, to explore my world, and to treat people with respect.

Later, as I began to make my own way in the world, I found the National Federation of the Blind. Lucky for me that I did, because it was the loving people of the NFB and the organization’s you-can-do-it philosophy that rekindled the attitude and ambition with which I was raised. You see, by my late teens and early twenties I had begun to question myself at every turn. My abilities, my ambitions, and my dreams seemed to be constantly bombarded by the powerfully defeating message sent by much of society that blindness is not quite respectable—that if you are blind, you are not really normal. And by virtue of that blindness, you can’t really compete. In spite of my parents, caregivers, and teachers’ attempts to shield me from those who tried to limit my involvement in normal activities, I heard them. I could not help being hurt and affected by them. The message was sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but it was almost crushing in its consistent presence.

Saying to me over and over, in situation after situation: “You are excluded, different; not as competent; in need of extra attention and special help; not as worthy; singled out and praised for the simplest accomplishment; of less value than those who have sight; less in every way: socially, scholastically, vocationally, in romance or in business.” And just about the time my naturally ebullient scheming, dreaming zest for life had almost been stifled and completely snuffed out, I happened upon the National Federation of the Blind, exhorting me through its wonderful literature not to quit and validating the way in which I was raised.

The NFB became the vehicle through which I could reclaim and reaffirm my normality. Through the Federation’s people, philosophy, and efforts on behalf of the blind I realized that I had options—just as my family, teachers, and caregivers had thought there would be. The opportunities didn’t come as easily as being the pretend ice cream man or selling popcorn to the GIs, or worms to the Bloomfield, Connecticut, fishermen. They never do come that easily, not when you are an adult in the real world. When you are blind, opportunities can be even harder to come by, mostly due to the limitations many in society place on those of us who are blind.
Through the work of the National Federation of the Blind on behalf of blind people, more opportunities are being created. The NFB is educating the public and providing blind people with knowledge, inspiration, and instruction. And through my involvement in the NFB I realized there could be meaningful social and vocational opportunities for me after all. There could be, that is, if I would only dream them and work hard for them. There would be if I took the initiative to claim them, and thanks to the National Federation of the Blind I have.

I am the project manager of my own joint-venture company with forty-eight employees providing food service in five locations. So come to think of it (even after all these years) I still sell ice cream, peanuts, peanut butter cookies, and popcorn. Of course there’s also veal Parmesan, fried chicken, the best burgers in Denver, salads, baked goods, and more. I love it all: the scheduling, staffing, financing, menu planning, costing, contract negotiating, purchasing, marketing and promotion, and providing staff training in sales and customer service. I love the challenges, and I love feeling good about working hard, providing leadership, and making a good living managing my own business. I guess it was my destiny.

I haven’t had a call for worms lately, but hey—make me an offer.