Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006

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Who Says You Can't Go Home Again?
Reflections on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Louisiana Center for the Blind

by Chris Danielsen

From the Editor: Chris Danielsen is the member of the national staff who edits the Voice of the Nation's Blind, the Federation's online magazine <www.voiceofthenationsblind.org>. He recently traveled to Ruston, Louisiana, to take part in the twentieth anniversary celebration of the founding of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the first privately operated training center for blind adults that is grounded in and conducted according to the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. For almost a generation now the Louisiana Center has been graduating blind people with high expectations for themselves and a determination to contribute to their home communities and the blindness community. Here is Chris's report on the festivities and the institution they celebrated:

The Louisiana Center for the Blind sign

The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote a book titled You Can't Go Home Again, suggesting that we can never recapture the past. But rock and roll singer Jon Bon Jovi has recently countered that sentiment with his song "Who Says You Can't Go Home?," in which he sings about the joys of returning to his hometown, "the only place they call me one of their own." A recent experience has inclined me to agree with Bon Jovi. That experience was returning to Ruston, Louisiana, for the twentieth anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), held in conjunction with the state convention of the NFB of Louisiana. The LCB opened in October of 1985, and the celebration event was originally to have taken place last October. Sadly, however, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the state, and the LCB premises themselves became an impromptu shelter for blind refugees from the storms and their families. So the celebration was postponed to April 7 to 9 of this year.

I graduated from LCB in December of 1992 after undergoing six months of training there. At that time the center had been in existence for only eight years. Although it had moved from a small gray house on Bonner Street to its current location at 101 South Trenton, it was a smaller facility than it is today. Nonetheless, the experience of being there changed my life, and although I had been an NFB member before going to Ruston, I left knowing, at least at a subconscious level, that I would devote my life to the organization that had, through LCB and its students and staff, given me so much.

I first became acquainted with LCB in the summer of 1991, when I attended my first NFB national convention in New Orleans as a scholarship winner. Until that time I was accustomed to thinking of myself as some kind of super blind guy. I received my education at a series of public schools and at a small university, where I was the only blind student, so naturally all of my accomplishments amazed my teachers and peers. I was a little intimidated by the idea of going to a strange hotel in a strange city and participating in the convention, but I thought this anxiety was a natural state of mind for a blind person.

Boy, was I wrong! I quickly discovered that I couldn't keep up with many of the blind people I met at the convention, who walked with such speed and confidence that I was often left far behind, trudging along with what I later learned was a cane far too short for me. More than once I found myself (rather sheepishly) taking the arm of a blind person, much as I would have done with a sighted guide. My fellow conventioneers were uniformly understanding and patient, but in the middle of the week, when I was being mentored by an extraordinarily lively and capable young woman named Melody Lindsey, I found myself seated with and introduced to her friends Joanne Wilson, Louisiana state president and director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and Jerry and Merilynn Whittle, two staff members there. Joanne was blunt in her assessment of my travel skills: "You've got guts, but your skills need some work." She encouraged me to consider coming to LCB. I promised her that I would give the matter due consideration, but even then I was not fully convinced that I needed what the center had to offer.

In the spring of 1992 I had no thought of attending the center; instead, I was focused on trying to obtain an internship opportunity in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of my bachelor's degree in political science. I began to experience doubts about the venture, however, when I learned that, although we would be provided dormitory rooms at American University, we would be on our own for meals and transportation. Quite abruptly I realized that I was not prepared for such an experience. I decided to spend my summer in Ruston instead of Washington. After a bureaucratic tussle with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, I was on my way to Louisiana.

What I planned as a summer vacation brushing up on my blindness skills turned into a six-month course of study at the LCB. During that time I met people whom I am fortunate to call my friends and colleagues to this day, including Pam and Roland Allen, the Whittles, Karl Smith, Jesse Hartle, Melody Lindsey, Ollie Cantos, Jeff and Zena Pearcy, Ruth Sager, Joanne and Harold Wilson, and many others. In addition to learning to cook, improving my cane-travel skills (with a much longer cane), and significantly improving my proficiency with the slate and stylus, I got up on water skis for the first time and went rock-climbing in New Mexico. I visited soon-to-be President Bill Clinton's hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and got to shake his hand at a political rally there.

I participated in a Toastmasters club that Jerry Whittle organized. I cut down a Christmas tree and walked seven miles to Grambling University. I spent many afternoons in seminar class and many late nights with my fellow students discussing our developing philosophy of blindness and our plans for the future. Despite my mother's constant worry that I would starve, not knowing how to cook, I ate very well but also exercised regularly. I lived in and maintained my own apartment for the first time in my life. I prepared a meal for all of the staff and students, got dropped off at an undisclosed location in Ruston and found my way back to the center, and took a Greyhound bus to the nearby town of Monroe to find a building I'd never been to before. I had access to more Braille books than I had ever seen in my life, and read as many of them as I could. On a trip home to South Carolina to attend the NFB state convention there, I navigated an airport unassisted for the first time. I sang in a local church choir in Ruston and learned to play hand bells.

I experienced some frustration as I worked to acquire new skills, but Joanne and her capable and compassionate staff were always there to encourage me, and I experienced many more highs than lows. I was surrounded by people who had complete confidence in me, and in the end I could not help absorbing that confidence. I left the center with new skills, but, perhaps more important, I left believing in myself and in my ability to cope with any challenge that confronted me, whether it was directly related to my blindness or not.

An unexpected illness and the pressures of law school kept me from returning to the LCB when its facilities were expanded in 1994 or 1995, so I did not return to Ruston until this past spring. Nonetheless, once I had taken a cab from the convention hotel to the area of Ruston where the center is located, I was surprised at how familiar everything seemed, even with the changes to the original Trenton Street building and some of its surroundings. I toured the expanded facility, including the new woodshop, housed in what used to be Hinton's Feed and Seed Store, directly across Railroad Avenue from the center and hard by the railroad tracks. The assistant shop instructor, James Mays, gave me an extensive tour of the shop and showed me the many projects students were working on.

I wish the shop had been in operation when I was a student because I would have loved to make a handsome mantel clock for my final project, as some students were doing. In fact, the lobby of the center is graced by a grandfather clock that a center graduate named Jonathan Cagle built. I was also pleased to see the expanded kitchen and dining facilities, and I rejoiced with Braille instructor Jerry Whittle over the fact that he now has more room for his beloved collection of Braille books, which are also now meticulously organized. I saw many old friends and met many new people during my tour of the center, but all of them greeted me like one of the family, and I felt throughout the experience that I was in a place where I very much belonged. My old friend Melody Lindsey showed me around the expanded facilities, and this time I had no trouble keeping up with her at all.

Pictured here are Louisiana Center for the Blind founder Joanne Wilson, LCB Director Pam Allen, and Louisiana State Representative Rodney Alexander.

Not only have the facilities of the Louisiana Center for the Blind expanded, the programs have broadened as well. A career center, where students can take job development classes or work to complete their GED, is housed a few blocks away from the Trenton Street building. The staff of LCB works closely with the faculty and staff of the Professional Research and Development Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, directed by Dr. Edward Bell and staffed by many LCB alumni. Students now occupy two blocks of apartments on Mississippi Avenue, about a half mile from the main LCB building. In addition to the Buddy Program for preteens and the STEP program for teenagers, which were in existence when I was a student, LCB now conducts programs for infants and toddlers and for senior citizens.

I am not the only person with fond memories of the LCB. Many people I know and others who are part of my extended LCB family shared their reminiscences during the convention. Connie Connolly explained that she believed she would never resume her career as a nurse when she became blind but was able to do so after becoming one of the first graduates of the center. Jesse Hartle, who now works in the governmental affairs department at the National Center for the Blind, told the story of a camping trip he took while a student in the LCB's Buddy Program for preteens, which was rudely interrupted by a fierce thunderstorm. Jesse recounted how, even with lightning striking all around a picnic shelter at an Arkansas campground, Joanne Wilson instructed him to grill a hot dog for himself. "The lady is totally nuts," Jesse said he thought at the time, but realized later, when he became a Buddy counselor, that it was important to take every possible moment during the four-week program to influence the lives and attitudes of the students in a positive way.

Joanne Wilson addresses the NFB of Louisiana banquet. Listening are Pam Allen (left) and Marc and Patricia Maurer.

I have my own memories of that camping trip. All of the students, from nine-year-olds to adults, were to spend the weekend learning outdoor skills, but after the thunderstorm soaked our tents and supplies, the youngsters were sent home, and several of us adult students and staff dismantled the campsite. The project and the van trip back to Ruston, including a very late meal at a truck stop in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, took the rest of the night, but it was an opportunity for me to bond with fellow students and staff that I remember with pleasure.

The history of LCB was celebrated in other ways besides the many speeches and panel discussions. Jerry "Regis" Whittle quizzed random members of the audience, including me, about Federation and LCB history throughout the sessions and banquet in a simulated game show called Who Wants to Be a Federationist? Karl Smith and a choir of banquet attendees performed Federation songs, including "Happy Home for the Blind," a ditty composed by LCB students and staff and set to the tune of "Home on the Range," about the kind of rehabilitation center that LCB most certainly is not, where blind rehabilitation students "sit around on their behinds" and learn nothing more complicated than punching talking clocks for the time and taking sponge baths.

Jerry and Merilynn Whittle and Neita Ghrigsby, affectionately known to students as "Miss Neita," were given special recognition during the banquet as staff members who had been with the center since its inception. Jerry Whittle kept his speech short and summed up the feelings of many, saying: "In everything that matters, we are one." NFB President Marc Maurer introduced Joanne Wilson and shared the story of how the Louisiana affiliate was organized in 1973.

Joanne emphasized the importance of seeing the possibilities of the future and then making them come true in her keynote banquet address, citing the LCB's rapid expansion as only one example of the kind of thinking that had built the Federation and improved the lives of the blind throughout the years. She told the story of a magical spyglass that allowed the king and subjects of a declining kingdom to see the bright possibilities for its future and, having seen and believed, to make them come true. She emphasized that it is important for each of us as individuals, as well as through entities like the Louisiana Center for the Blind, to pass that magical spyglass on to each blind person and to each generation of blind people in order to make the future brighter and more full of promise. I am grateful to the LCB staff and students, who passed the spyglass on to me, and I will attempt to pass it on to others. I am glad I paid a return visit to my home in Ruston and got another dose of the rejuvenating spirit that makes the National Federation of the Blind so special.

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