The Braille Monitor _July 1997
Kathie Mathis: A Fellow Federationist
by Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: The following biographical sketch first appeared in the Summer, 1996, issue of the Braille Examiner, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. It is part of writer and Illinois affiliate First Vice President Debbie Stein's ongoing series of portraits of Illinois Federationists. Kathie Mathis currently serves as Treasurer of the NFB of Illinois. She was successful in her bids on two vending locations mentioned in the profile and is now a working vendor. Here is Debbie Stein's story:
Soon after Kathie Mathis finished college,
her father died of cancer. One of their last conversations has always stayed
with her. "Life is an adventure," her father said. "No matter
what happens, some good will come out of it." Judging by the way she has
lived, Kathie took those words to heart.
After graduating from the University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL), Kathie took a job with the Department of children's and Family Services (DCFS) near Hoopestown, Illinois. As director of a multi-service agency, she found herself trying to serve two rigidly separate communities. Most of the wealthy farm families in the area believed that social service was strictly for the migrant workers who lived outside of town. Kathie began speaking to civic organizations, explaining that social services could benefit everyone. She enjoyed public speaking and saw it as a vehicle for changing people's attitudes.
In 1973 Kathie decided to make a major career shift. Following the example of an uncle she greatly admired, she went into law enforcement. As a juvenile officer with the St. Clair County Police Department, she established an exciting new program to work with young offenders. Her Status Offender Program was the first of its kind in Illinois outside Chicago. Young people in the program signed a contract which stipulated several requirements. The child agreed to perform community service and to enter counseling with his or her family. "It was really a tough program," Kathie recalls. "When they came into it, some of the kids just hated me. But as time went on, you'd see their attitude changing. It really made a difference."
Whenever she encountered a problem, Kathie tried to find a solution. Her police work gave her the opportunity to set up a variety of constructive new programs. During the 1970 's she established one of the state's first drug abuse prevention programs for school-age children. She helped create a recreation center for teens. She also pioneered a crime prevention program for senior citizens. She and her staff led rap sessions at nursing homes and senior centers, teaching safety precautions and encouraging people to report crimes when they occurred.
In 1981 Kathie Mathis was appointed Chief of Police for St. Clair County. Somehow she managed to combine her busy work schedule with the demands of raising five children. She was also very involved in church work and Scouting. As her children reached college age, she began to look for loans and scholarships. She soon realized that few families in her community knew these resources existed. She gathered all the information she could about financial aid for higher education and shared it with other interested parents.
In 1986 Kathie Mathis suddenly lost the vision in her left eye. Doctors found that she had a rare disease called "histoplasmosis." This condition, which is endemic in the Mississippi River Basin, is caused by a fungus found in bird droppings. "It's a real classy disease," Kathy says wryly. "I have no idea how I got it." The doctors assured her that her other eye would not be affected. Kathie quickly learned to compensate for her loss and resumed all her normal activities.
Kathie's work as police chief eventually led her to take a position as deputy federal marshal. The job opened up a realm of exciting possibilities. Federal marshals may work as undercover agents. They may be called upon to deal with drug kingpins or international terrorists. On occasion they protect judges or witnesses during high-profile trials. Kathie was protecting a federal judge early in 1992 when
suddenly, from one minute to the next, her right eye ceased to function. She was almost totally blind.
At first Kathie was terrified. If she were blind, she could not keep her job. Her whole way of life was crumbling. Doctors told her that there was little hope of restoring her vision. Nevertheless, she underwent a risky operation which seemed to offer her one last chance. The surgery was unsuccessful and led to a series of life-threatening complications. Almost a year passed before she fully recovered her health and could think about the future.
Once she accepted permanent blindness,
Kathie realized there must still be ways she could remain active and productive.
She contacted the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS). After two months
a counselor finally arrived to do an intake interview. Kathie asked about the
kinds of jobs available to blind people and was told that there were only two
choices--work with either Social Security or the IRS. Kathie asked about training
in daily living skills and was assured that a home teacher would work with her.
The home teacher never materialized. After months of mounting frustration, Kathie
enrolled at ICRE-Wood (Illinois Center for Rehabilitation Education at Wood
Street) in Chicago. She was launched on a new adventure.
Kathie Mathis entered ICRE-Wood with a sense of optimism. At last she would get the vital skills she needed. She wanted training in Braille, mobility, computers-- anything and everything. But from the first she found massive obstacles in her way. She was denied Braille instruction on the grounds that it would not help her. She was placed on an endless waiting list for a computer class. She was never given any instruction in the use of the long white cane. Kathie and her fellow students spent most of their time confined to a lounge with nothing to do. They were forbidden to leave the lounge without permission from the staff. "It was terrible," Kathie says. "I saw people come into the program with hope, with a sense of self-worth. By the time they left, they'd been beaten down. The humiliation, the contempt of the staff made them lesser persons. ""
Within her first few weeks at the center, Kathie revived a long disbanded student council. Against enormous resistance from the staff, the students began pushing for improvements in the program. It all finally came to a head with the affair of the Christmas tree.
"Christmas was coming, and they weren't going to do a thing to celebrate," Kathie explains. "No decorations, no party, nothing. There was a holiday fund, but the money went for a big staff party. There was absolutely nothing planned for the students."
Kathie and the other trainees began asking for a Christmas tree. The staff refused outright. "Why did blind people need a tree?" the administration asked. After all, They couldn't see it. Even when Kathie offered to donate a tree and ornaments herself, she was told it would not be allowed.
Eventually Kathie learned that someone had given the center an artificial tree five years before. It had never once been used. The staff said it had somehow been lost. Undaunted, the students kept applying pressure. Finally, on the day before the Christmas break, the tree mysteriously appeared. Even then the staff argued that the students should not decorate it themselves. Blind people would do the job badly. The tree would look lopsided. It would be an embarrassment to the center. But the students prevailed. They decorated the tree themselves and had a memorable Christmas party. They left for the break with a feeling of triumph.
Throughout her eighteen months at ICRE-Wood, Kathie Mathis went on pushing for change. For her efforts she was harassed in countless ways--denied courses she wanted, given an impossible schedule which she could not follow, and threatened with expulsion. But finally, in April, 1994, she completed training for the state vending program. Currently she is bidding on two vending locations, one at the Federal Building in East St. Louis and the other in Greenville Federal Prison. She finds it ironic that she has come full circle in a sense, back to federal law enforcement.
Kathie's experience at ICRE-Wood taught her that blind people must stand together for mutual support, that they must fight side-by-side.
One day a staff member told her about the NFB. He warned her to stay away from Federationists, that they were "a bunch of radicals." Considering the source, this was a high recommendation. Kathie contacted the NFB of Illinois and began meeting with Steve Benson and Bryan Johnson. Those meetings were a powerful learning experience on both sides. Kathie alerted Steve and Bryan to the true horrors of ICRE-Wood. In turn they taught her about Federation philosophy. She discovered that she was not alone. Through the Federation blind people all across the country were fighting for dignity and equality.
In 1994 Kathie went to Detroit for her first NFB National Convention. She came home determined to start a chapter in the Belville area. She spent the next year recruiting new members and spreading the Federation message. The Four Rivers Chapter of the NFB of Illinois was chartered at the 1995 state convention in Quincy.
"I still really miss police work," Kathie admits. "But I love the things I'm doing now. Really, I've never been happier in my life. I went through some pretty rough times, but a lot of good has come out of it in the end."