Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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Movers and Shakers

Biographies of NOPBC Parent Leaders:

Barbara Cheadle, President; Carol Castellono, First Vice President; Martin (Marty) Greiser, Second Vice President; Sandy Merchant Taboada, Treasurer; and board members Barbara Mathews, Debby Brackett, and Marla Palmer

The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) is a national membership organization of parents and friends of blind children reaching out to each other to give vital parent-to-parent support, encouragement, and information. An affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the NOPBC sponsors an annual day-long national seminar and numerous other workshops for parents and activities for youth in late June, early July at the National Convention of the NFB. Five officers and six board members of the NOPBC are elected at the annual meeting, also conducted at the NFB Convention. These parent leaders volunteer their time and work tirelessly throughout the year and at the NFB Convention to help individual parents and to develop and expand resources available to parents and their children. Following are the biographies of seven of the eleven 2003-2004 NOPBC board members. The remaining four biographies will be published in the next issue of Future Reflections. The biographies of President Cheadle and First Vice President Castellano are reprints from other publications. Here are the seven biographies:

Barbara Cheadle—Featured Mentor

Reprinted from the “Mentor’s Corner” feature of the June 23, 2003, collegeboard.com Inc., Web publication, My Road.

Barbara Cheadle
Barbara Cheadle

Barbara Cheadle has vision—not the twenty-twenty kind, but insight and clarity of purpose. Take a look at her work with blind children and see it as she does, with a dream of equality and an eye toward the future.

Barbara Cheadle is the coordinator of programs for blind and visually impaired children at the National Federation of the Blind and serves as editor, writer, and publisher of the magazine Future Reflections. She is also the parent of a blind son and president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Backed by a bachelor’s degree in education and postbaccalaureate studies in rehabilitation and education of the visually impaired, Cheadle tackles issues of blindness in the home, the workplace, and the world beyond.


The Interview

Q: What was the chain of events that led to your work with blind people?

I majored in education in college, at Southwest Missouri State University, and during my last year there, I realized that although I loved education, my place in life was not in the classroom. Luckily, a bachelor’s in education is a very versatile degree, and a lot of companies are interested in people with that background, so it’s not difficult to go into other areas with that kind of education. I accidentally fell into a job with a state agency serving the blind. I had a roommate who worked for Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, and I ended up getting a job as a counselor working with blind adults.

Q: It can’t be an accident that you remained in the same field all this time. What kept you there?

As a child of the Sixties being confronted with the issues of blindness for the first time, I came to my job with the assumption that blind people would be organized and know what they wanted, and I was right. It turned out that there was an active chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Nebraska with lots of wonderful, creative things going on—a lot of politics and very exciting stuff. I discovered that work with the blind was not a case of charity but a civil rights movement. As a young person with ideals, being part of that was very exciting. I joined on as a member of the NFB to learn from blind people and to apply what I learned from my job as a rehabilitation counselor, and I have been a member now for about twenty-five years.

Q: Can you give a working definition of blindness and the range of impairment the term covers?

We use the word blind whenever we refer to those who have sufficient vision loss to significantly alter how they conduct the affairs of their lives. If you can’t drive a car, that’s pretty significant—in our culture especially. Most people who are blind are not totally without sight.

Q: How did you get exposed to the issues of blind children?

Through my associations with my job and the NFB, I met my husband to be, and we got married and started a family. We had one biological child, and then we decided to adopt a child. On the adoption form it asked if we would accept a child with a disability, and we said, “Sure—blind.” Right away, the agency said, “Oh, we have a child for you.” So you might say I became a parent of a blind child deliberately. That led to a whole new world of issues and challenges in both blindness and parenting.

Q: How did having a blind child help to redirect the focus of your professional work?

At the time, although there was a great deal of passion, interest, and support for the issues of blind children, my husband and I quickly came to terms with the fact that there really weren’t any formal resources available to parents. There were some professional journals and a few local newsletters, but there was no national publication for parents of blind children, and though there had been some attempts to get a parents’ organization going, they were very difficult to keep alive. They would spring up here and there, but then the kids they were serving would grow up, and the parents involved would move on to other issues, and the programs would die. So my husband and I were the charter members and officers of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), which is affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind, and we became involved in the development of the first national publication for parents of blind children, called Future Reflections. Once the NFB saw the first issue of the magazine, they decided to support it and fund it, because they saw that it was desperately needed.

Q: When did you become an official employee of the NFB?

In the early years I was either an unpaid volunteer or a volunteer with a stipend. A few years ago I started working full-time for the organization out of our national office in Baltimore.

Q: What are your responsibilities at the NFB now?

The primary focus of my job is producing the literature that we develop for the parents and teachers of blind children, with the core being Future Reflections magazine. Beyond that, I plan and organize workshops, seminars, and educational and fun activities for parents and children. I also develop model programs for our affiliates around the country. I do some advocacy, too—going with families to meetings with their schools to negotiate educational programs for their children. I assist families and do phone consultations with people from all over the nation who call me with issues and problems. I give them advice, referrals, encouragement, and information. Most of all I connect them with other people in the NFB and the NOPBC, because that’s crucial.

Q: What kinds of things can you teach blind people to make their lives easier?

There is a variety of what we call alternative techniques. That means that when a blind person is unlocking the door to his apartment, he must learn how to quickly and easily feel the keyhole with his fingers instead of looking at it. It can also mean using Braille, using a cane, and other things that are less obvious, like just listening and using common sense and senses like taste and touch and smell. Blind people have to get comfortable with the concept of blindness. They must wrestle with the attitude problems that they and other people have about blindness and come to the conclusion that it really is OK to be blind. Only then can they be free to use whatever techniques work and will make them efficient and effective and competitive in life. For some that may just mean letting people know that they can’t see the words on the blackboard, or asking someone to describe something for them, or asking for directions on the street.

Q: Do you find that kids generally have the optimism and flexibility to handle their disabilities pretty well?

Absolutely. If parents don’t overprotect them, they’re fine. I tell parents with blind babies, “Your kid won’t even know she is blind or what that means until she’s about four years old.” And they say, “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.” Here they’ve been crying and thinking how awful their child’s loss of sight is, but she hasn’t lost anything she ever had. I’m empathetic with parents’ grief, but I try to help them move past that as quickly as possible, because children model their parents’ behavior and attitudes, so it’s crucial to be upbeat and matter-of-fact and say, “Yeah, this is the way it is, and this is how we do things.”

Q: Do you find that many parents are overprotective of their blind kids?

Yes, that’s typical. It’s instinctual in our species to be protective of our young. We bring these helpless little infants into the world, and our job is to keep them safe, but it’s also our job to teach them. Unfortunately, our society’s views about blindness are so deeply ingrained that those protective instincts crowd out the instinct to promote independence, which is crucial to our children’s survival. Most parents have the common sense to know they’re not going to live forever or be able to always take care of their kids. They don’t want to be washing their daughter’s hair when she’s twenty-seven, but they still don’t know how blind people do things. How do you peel an apple if you’re blind? What techniques are both safe and effective? The good news is that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We provide them with the information and opportunities to learn and then teach their kids.

Q: What sort of help are you able to give parents?

We connect them with blind people who can be both mentors and models for their families—sources of inspiration and hope, but also sources of more mundane information. When they visit a blind person who cooks dinner for them and talks with them, they learn lessons they couldn’t get by reading a book. We also connect them with other parents and a supportive network and give them information on what to expect in the future and about laws and rights and responsibilities.

Q: Can you give an example of a family you’ve worked with that really needed guidance?

I met a young man years ago whose parents were still brushing his teeth, even though he was in high school. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “What in the world are we going to do?” But although his parents got the message late, they finally got it. And the son, though he’d been overprotected, still had the desire and motivation to be independent. He went to a good rehabilitation-training center, and when he got out, he got his own apartment, got a job as a dishwasher, and made his own life for himself. And that’s what it’s all about. All work is respectable. He was the best dishwasher he could be, and it was a good job. He had his own place, his own income, his own life.

Q: What kinds of training programs are available to blind kids?

NFB has three training centers in the country. We operate a center in Minnesota called BLIND, Inc., the Colorado Center for the Blind, and the Louisiana Center for the Blind. These centers have all developed excellent summer programs for children. They are not camps but true skills programs where kids can go and stay in facilities and apartments with blind counselors. They have blind instructors who really focus on blindness skills: kids get trained in computers; learn about cane travel; get experience with public transportation, crossing streets, Braille, and social skills. They eat in restaurants, they have recreational opportunities—even things like mountain climbing, horseback riding, camping, and roller-skating—and for the older kids, there are part-time job experiences in the community. Kids employ the skills they learn in cooking class, as well as daily living skills like cleaning the bathtub, in their apartments. Other programs and seminars focus on a variety of skills. Blind adults come in to give kids experience taking cabs, for example, explaining how to give directions to drivers, how to stay in charge, how to tell by the twists and turns where they are, how to make sure they don’t get ripped off.

Q: What are the challenges for blind kids in regular schools?

Blind kids should and do learn the same things sighted kids do in school. The problem is not a matter of content as much as an issue of presentation. The information is there; the question is whether schools and teachers are providing the content in such a way that blind kids can access that information. If a teacher only writes material on the blackboard or an overhead projector, how can the blind child access that? There’s new technology that’s equipped with speech or that allows blind kids to download information into their own electronic notetaker and review it later. That’s wonderful stuff. But usually access is low-tech, which may simply mean that the teacher reads aloud what he writes or has Braille or enlarged copies available.

The biggest issue is whether the blind kid can get the Braille textbook on time. In Congress right now there is legislation being introduced called the Instructional Material Accessibility Act, which proposes the development of a national standard for an electronic file format for all publishers of instructional materials. It would require that every textbook file be sent to a national storehouse, so that books could move quickly and easily from publishers to the people who reproduce them in Braille or large type, then to the producer who makes them, and on to kids in schools. This is a major problem, and it’s been getting worse. There isn’t a single blind or low-vision child in this country who at least once hasn’t run into major problems getting materials for certain classes.

Q: I understand you’re involved in a project to teach sighted kids Braille. Why do you think that’s important?

Sighted people tend to characterize blindness with words like pathetic, and dependency, and sad—either negative things or very dull things. And it occurred to us that there are things that are very interesting and exciting about blindness. For example, kids are fascinated by Braille. First of all, there’s the aspect of a secret code, and they love that. And the hand method of producing Braille with a slate and stylus for young kids is fun. Kids like to be active, and physically punching holes into paper and hearing them pop and then feeling what they’ve done is very exciting to sighted kids. In our Braille is Beautiful program, we teach Braille to kids in schools in hopes of turning what society has traditionally thought of as sad or boring into something interesting and challenging. When kids are introduced to blindness via Braille, they see it in a different light. They see blind children who can read Braille with some respect and enthusiasm, and that changes their whole attitude about blindness. We think that if sighted children are introduced to Braille at a young age, we can change a whole generation’s perspective on blindness.

Q: You’ve fallen into a life’s work that you didn’t foresee or even intend. How do you find that you’ve grown into this career, and how do you feel it suits your need and desires now?

I have a passion for justice and a passion to see that people—all people—are given the opportunities to fulfill their potential. I never dreamed when I was in high school and college that I would be able to do what I’ve done. I’ve been able to do this not necessarily because of my own ability or talent but because I happened to be at the right place at the right time. The NFB provided me with the opportunity to work as hard as I could and to be guided by people who had wonderful minds. It’s so fulfilling to see the kids I’ve worked with grow up and achieve their potential.

Editor’s Note: In addition to her son who is blind, Cheadle has two other children: John E. Cheadle, a third-year divinity student at the University of Chicago, and Anna K. Cheadle, a graduate of the University of Chicago Masters of Humanities program who is currently living and working in England. “All of my children,” states Barbara, “benefited from their association with the National Federation of the Blind, and they will tell you that.”

Carol Castellano
Teacher, Writer, Activist

Reprinted from The Sounding Board, a publication of the NFB of New Jersey, Fall/Winter 2001.

Carol Castellano
Carol Castellano

Carol Castellano, co-founder and President of Parents of Blind Children-New Jersey (POBC-NJ), was born and raised in northern New Jersey. After graduating with Highest Honors in English Literature from Douglass College, Rutgers University, Carol began a career in publishing. First hired as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown & Co. in New York City, she then accepted a position as production coordinator and later editor at Butterick Publishing, also in New York.

After several years, Carol was seeking a change and decided to try teaching. She was hired as the third grade teacher at the Barnard School, a small private school in upper Manhattan, where she also functioned as lower school coordinator. During this time she met and married her husband, Bill Cucco.

Bill and Carol had their first child, Serena, in 1984. Though Serena’s birth was anxiously awaited, she truly surprised her parents by appearing four months early. During Serena’s subsequent nearly eight-month hospitalization, Carol and Bill learned “more than we ever wanted to know” about premature babies and the difficulties that could befall them.

It was in a hospital room in North Carolina, while awaiting news of one of Serena’s surgeries, that Carol and Bill were introduced to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). As Carol tells the story, “The hospital social worker brought us some books and literature to read, one of which was Doris Willoughby’s A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children. He warned us that this organization had some pretty good literature, but to stay away from them because they were radical and militant. My ears perked right up! I called the NFB as soon as we got back to New Jersey.” Carol continues, “I loved the NFB from the start because it was the first organization we encountered that said outright that our blind child had a right to a full, satisfying life and that we did not have to be grateful for crumbs thrown to us from the table.” Carol began to be in close touch with Barbara Cheadle, President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), who gave her invaluable advice about Serena’s education. She also began attending meetings of the Northern Chapter of the NFB of New Jersey.

Serena’s birth proved to be a turning point in Carol’s career. She began writing articles on prematurity prevention and became deeply involved with a group of physicians, ethicists, and parents who came together to discuss the difficult issues of decision-making in the neonatal nursery. At the same time, Carol’s first piece on bringing up a blind baby appeared in the Future Reflections magazine.

As time went on Carol was asked to serve on the Statewide Consumer Advisory Board of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. As Carol tells it, “It was the very dark time of state budget cuts. I realized I was perhaps the only parent in the state who knew that cuts were planned to the education of blind children budget. Somehow, I had to let other parents know about the impending cuts so that we could work together to stop them.” Joe Cutter, at that time Serena’s orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor, had arranged for a small group of parents with blind children to meet each other. The families became friends and strong supporters of one another in the challenges they faced in getting their children a good education. In December 1991, Carol proposed that the group became an official NOPBC affiliate, and thus, Parents of Blind Children-NJ was born.

By this time Carol was attending NFB National Conventions every year and her talents were recognized by a wider circle. In 1991 she was elected Second Vice President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and then in 1998, First Vice President, a position she holds today. In 1997, Carol was appointed to the Federation’s national Scholarship Committee. She was the first sighted person ever to serve on that committee.

Carol was also appointed to the State Human Services Advisory Council and the State Rehabilitation Council. She enjoys a good working relationship with the New Jersey Commission for the Blind staff and has collaborated on many projects with them. Carol’s efforts have been recognized. In October 1998 she received an award from the POBC-NJ Board, and in May 1999, SPAN, the Statewide Parents Advocacy Network, presented her with the Diana Cuthbertson Parent-Professional Collaboration Award. Carol felt very honored to receive the Mary O’Donnell Advocacy Award from the Commission for the Blind in November 2000 at their Believe and Achieve 90th Anniversary celebration.

Since 1988, Carol has written many articles and made countless presentations on the education and development of blind children. She organizes and conducts POBC-NJ’s Parents Seminars and Teacher Training and edits POBC-NJ’s newsletter In Touch, which goes out to over six hundred families. Carol is co-author of The Bridge to Braille: Reading and School Success for the Young Blind Child and author of Because Books Matter. She is working on her third book, tentatively entitled Making It Work: Educating the Blind Child in the Public School. Carol also works as a Job Coach and consults with and provides training for school districts regarding blind students.

Carol feels very fortunate to have found the NFB while Serena was still a baby. Federation philosophy enabled her and Bill to regard Serena as a normal person and to bring her up with high expectations. Most important, because of Federation philosophy, Serena has high expectations of herself. “Serena has become an independent young woman, determined to make her mark on the world because of the Federation. The Federation was our backbone as we battled to get Serena what she needed-and many times that was just getting the school to look at her as a normal student.” Carol continues, “So many times, when someone would say to us, ‘But she can’t do that, she’s blind,’ we could respond, ‘Oh yes she can. We know plenty of blind people who do that’ because we had met so many active people at NFB conventions.”

Carol’s family enjoys attending the kids’ sports and band activities, going to ball games, hiking, traveling, and vacations at the Jersey shore. Son John, who joined the family on New Year’s Eve in 1986, is a champion skim boarder, while Serena loves body surfing the waves. Bill enjoys bicycling and gardening and Carol loves music and is a jogger. Though Carol says being the only Yankees fan in a family of Mets lovers is difficult, she believes she will survive.

Carol says her life’s dream had always been to have a family and to write a book. “Who knew that having a baby would be so complicated for me and that the book I wrote would turn out not to be the Great American Novel, but instead books to help parents learn about Braille and educating their blind child?”

Noting that living with two teenagers is not nearly as bad as they say it is, Carol concludes, “I have a wonderful family, I have the opportunity to use my time and talents to help others, and I am part of the movement to help blind people achieve first class citizenship. I consider myself a very lucky person.” Carol adds that she hopes always to live by the words, “Don’t think limits; think possibilities.”

Martin (Marty) Greiser
Outdoor Enthusiast, Volunteer EMT, IEP Advocate

Marty Greisner
Marty Greiser

National Organization of Parents of Blind Children Second Vice President Marty Greiser grew up in southern Michigan. Born and raised on a farm, Marty did farm work during his school years. Later he became a student at the University of Toledo where he studied engineering and education. In his career, Marty has worked for the same company for twenty-six years in many capacities, from rock grinding to operating a mill to quality assurance lab technology to blasting. Currently he works as a heavy equipment operator in an open pit mine, a job he very much enjoys.

An outdoor enthusiast, Marty enjoys skiing, hunting, fishing, and hiking, activities he shares with his two children, twins Cody and Jessie who are seventeen. Marty is also an involved member of his community in Dillon, Montana. As a nationally certified Emergency Medical Technician, he has been a volunteer with the ambulance service for the past eleven years. Marty is also very active with the National Federation of the Blind of Montana and has made significant contributions to the state affiliate over the years.

Marty became involved with the Federation and NOPBC back in 1989, when he called the state affiliate looking for information to help his son who is blind. He was referred to the NFB headquarters in Baltimore where he spoke to Barbara Cheadle and was put in touch with Ruby Ryles and Doris Willoughby, writers, educators, and experts in the education of blind children. At his first NFB National Convention in Denver in 1989, Marty bought a cane for Cody who was then two years old. Cody states that he doesn’t remember a time when he did not have a cane; it has always been a part of his life. Three years later, Marty was elected to the board of NOPBC and he has served in various offices ever since. Marty also serves, through appointment by NFB President Maurer, on the national NFB Scholarship Committee. However, among the many contributions he has made to the NOPBC, Marty may be best known for the fine IEP workshops that he plans, organizes, and moderates at the NFB National Convention each year.

Marty came to be an IEP expert in part because of his personal experiences. His periodic struggles to make sure that Cody received an “appropriate” education have been documented in Future Reflections articles. The first problem the family encountered was finding a Braille teacher for their tiny, rural town during Cody’s early kindergarten and elementary years. Several years later, after Cody moved to a new school district with his mother and stepfather, a dispute about assistive technology and placement arose. After a complex, drawn-out due process hearing, Marty and Cody’s mother prevailed and jointly won that battle for Cody, too.

Marty’s hopes for the future include seeing Cody mature into an independent adult. “We’re almost there,” he says with a smile.

Sandy Merchant Taboada
Veterinary Dermatologist, Professor, Parent Advocate

Sandy Merchant Taboada
Sandy Merchant Taboada

Sandy Taboada, President of the Louisiana Parents of Blind Children and the Baton Rouge Chapter of Parents of Blind Children, is also the current Treasurer of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Taboada completed her Bachelor of Science in Biology at Florida State University, her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at The University of Florida, and her Residency in Veterinary Dermatology at The University of Florida. She is currently Professor of Veterinary Dermatology at Louisiana State University, School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Her family includes her veterinarian husband Joe and their two children, Michael and Robert, as well as many pets! When her older son Michael was two and a half years of age, a tumor at the base of his brain was discovered and successfully removed. The next few years were quite a learning experience, trying to gather information on blindness in children as well as information on treatment for panhypopituitarism.

As things happen for a reason, a blind couple who were very active in the NFB and in the Guide Dog Division of the NFB came to Louisiana State University Veterinary School when Michael was three to talk to the students about treating guide dogs in their future veterinary careers. After meeting Toni and Ed, she learned that the National Federation of the Blind Annual Convention was to be held in a few months in New Orleans, Louisiana. What the Taboada family learned at that convention and beyond has changed their lives.

The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind; the NFB goals of security, equality, and opportunity for the blind; and the knowledge gained from its members continue to give the Taboada family the ammunition they need to create a positive learning environment for Michael and to locally create opportunities and programs where none exist. Sandy explains that never has the phrase, “He can’t do it because he is blind” been acceptable. Never has Michael uttered the similar phrase, “I can’t do it because I am blind.” Sandy states, “The idea that blindness is a limitation is never considered.” Michael is currently a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, an accomplished pianist, and a straight A student in the Gifted and Talented Academic Program in his local public school district.

Every day brings new challenges for both of her sons and her family. Sandy says, “‘Knowledge is power’ is a phrase often repeated in our household when we are confronting these new challenges.” With the appropriate attitude and armed with the appropriate information, these challenges are met and conquered. Sandy hopes that living the Federation philosophy is not only a benefit to her family but is also a benefit to others whom she and her family contact in their daily lives.

Barbara Mathews
Attorney, Community Leader, Writer

Baebara Mathews
Barbara Mathews

Barbara E. Mathews was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. She received a B.A. in Political Science from The Colorado College and a J.D. from the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She is an Associate General Counsel of Edison International and Southern California Edison. Previously, she was a partner at the law firm of Arnold & Porter. She started her law career as a law clerk for the Honorable Helen J. Frye, United States District Court for the District of Oregon.

Barbara lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband, Rob Sweeney, who is an award-winning cinematographer, her two daughters, Kiko Sweeney (age eleven) and Kyra Sweeney (age nine), and two cats. Kyra has been blind since birth, with a diagnosis of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Kyra attends her neighborhood public school in Santa Monica.

Barbara is a member of the Special Education District Advisory Committee for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. She served as a Girl Scout leader for several years. She has been active in fund-raising for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles. She serves as a parent volunteer for the South Bay Children’s Choir, based in Torrance, California.

In addition to serving on the Board of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, Barbara is secretary of the Parents of Blind Children Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of California. Barbara discovered the NFB and the NOPBC initially through Future Reflections, then by attending a national convention in 1998 when Kyra was four years old. She has described attending that convention as “a life-changing experience.”

Barbara has written several articles for Future Reflections. Kyra is a regular participant in the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. She met her best friend, Megan Bening of Arlington, Minnesota, through the Slate Pals program (a pen-pal program sponsored by the NOPBC). Kyra and Megan first met in person at the 2002 NFB National Convention.

Barbara is an avid runner. She and her family enjoy skiing and rock climbing. Her daughter Kiko is a member of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Team, and Kyra is an excellent skier. Non-skiing weekends are spent at the soccer field with Kiko, choir rehearsals with Kyra, or the beach. They enjoy annual vacations with extended family on the Oregon Coast and at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.

Debby Brackett
Teacher, Business Woman, Adoption Advocate

Debby Brackett
Debby Brackett

Debby Brackett was born in Mississippi and raised in Clemson, South Carolina. She and her husband, Bob, have three children: Luke (age thirteen), Daniel (age eight), and Winona, who will be seven on December 21, 2003. Winona has Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), and was adopted by the Brackett family from China at age three.

A graduate of Berry College and Georgia State University, Debby has an undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood and a MEd. in Early Childhood. A career teacher of twenty-plus years, Debby has taught in Atlanta, Georgia, and Miami, Florida, where she currently makes her home. She has taught children in grades preschool through fourth in public, private, and home-school settings. Her experience also includes directing a preschool program in Miami. In addition to her teaching career and being a full-time mom, Debby has been the secretary/bookkeeper for her husband’s landscaping business since 1987.

Debby enjoys reading, scrap booking, doing volunteer work for her church and local schools, and spending time with her children. When asked about her most important accomplishments, she unhesitatingly replies, “Making a difference in the lives of children.”

About their introduction to the NFB, Debby explains, “We met the NFB when we were contemplating the adoption of Winona. NFB jumped right in with answers to my questions and with lots of materials, resources, and information about blindness. Barbara Cheadle was instrumental in helping us feel this was something we could do.” Debby continues, “Our first national convention was in Philadelphia in July, 2000. What an eye-opening experience THAT was! We ‘knew’ that Winona was a capable child, but the convention helped us KNOW that she was truly going to go places. Blindness wasn’t going to stop her!”

Since her NFB convention experience, Debby has actively provided support and information to many other families of blind children in her region. However, she has a special interest in educating prospective adoptive families of blind children. She has already helped several adoptive families in the same way she and Bob were once helped. Debby points out that, “We did not have to go through the shock and mourning that birth parents experience, so I think we have something of an advantage. We can jump right in with, ‘This is how things are, what can we do to make it work?’ I encourage people to take on the challenge of adopting a blind child. It’s a blessing!”

Debby is very proud of Winona. “Winona has done much to change the perception that many people in our community have about the ‘limitations’ of blindness. She wants to try anything and everything-swimming, driving (Yes, she’s driven a convertible and a huge, two-level jeep!), rock climbing, cooking, etc. Her current challenge is learning to ride a two-wheel bike. She challenges us to treat her no differently than the other kids.” Ever the teacher, Debby also makes sure that literacy is a priority for Winona. “We are involved with the NFB Braille Readers are Leaders contest; it’s a real motivator for Winona to read!”

As Debby contemplates the future, she anticipates that she will, “Continue to work with Winona to help her reach her full potential, as well as continue to help other families as they travel this road.”

Marla Palmer
Recreation Specialist, Camp Volunteer, Early Intervention Advocate

Marla Palmer
Marla Palmer

Born in Salt Lake City, Marla Palmer was raised in nearby Bountiful, Utah. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.S. in Therapeutic Recreation. During college, Marla volunteered many hours in nursing homes, long-term care facilities for the developmentally disabled (DD/MR), and a rehabilitation division in a local hospital. She also chose to take a break during her college career to serve an eighteen-month service mission in Alabama for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The next high point in her life was meeting and marrying Michael S. Palmer, a Texan native. Michael is currently a successful pharmaceutical sales representative.

Marla’s first job out of college was as a licensed Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (TRS) for a long-term care facility with the responsibility of planning and implementing daily recreational activities for DD/MR adults. When Marla came on board, she felt the established program was not challenging the residents or getting them outdoors enough. She worked closely with local recreational organizations to provide funding and opportunities for residents to go cross-country skiing, river rafting, and on weeklong camps.

Later, Marla was hired as the program director for Camp Kostopulos, a non-profit organization nestled within the mountains of East Salt Lake City. This was her “dream job” as she was able to work and “play” with all ages of individuals with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities in a mountain setting. Her job (if you want to call it that) consisted of planning and implementing leisure education programs for adults and teens throughout the year and during special summer sessions. These activities—swimming, movies, dinners, parties, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, canoeing, camping out, cross country skiing, snowmobile riding, and so forth—provided social outlets, community integration/interaction, and good ol’ fun for the campers. She also planned and implemented an after-school program at the camp for elementary children. Marla worked with Camp Kostopulos up to the day before Megan was born and she has been a stay at home mom since—which she feels has been the best job so far. However, even though she no longer works for Camp Kostopulos, Marla and Michael stay in close contact with the camp and volunteer when needed. (Michael plays Santa every Christmas season at the popular camp Christmas party.)

Marla and Michael have three children: Megan (age seven), Adam (age four), and Lauren (age one), and a pet turtle, Claws. Megan and Adam inherited oculocutaneous albinism, type 2. Megan attends first grade and Adam is enrolled in a preschool in their neighborhood school. Both children are print and Braille readers (Adam, of course, is still in the pre-print/Braille stage). Although Marla enjoys being a stay-at-home mom, she is entertaining the idea of returning and working on a masters degree with a focus in the area of visual impairment and blindness.

Marla and Mike were first introduced to the National Federation of the Blind in 1996 by Marla’s cousin, Kris Cox, who at that time was the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah. “It honestly took some convincing to get us to attend our first National Convention in Dallas, Texas.” Marla said, “We weren’t sure we would ‘fit’ in a blind organization when our child was partially sighted/legally blind.” “However,” Marla continued, “Since we had family in Texas we felt we could at least escape the conference if we felt the need. But there was no need. From the first day of the convention, we knew this was the organization for us. The information, positive attitudes toward blindness, mentoring, and networking with parents and blind adult role models was an overwhelmingly positive and life-changing experience.”

Marla serves on the NOPBC board, as Vice President of the Parents of Blind Children of Utah, and as Secretary of the Utah, Davis/Weber Chapter of the NFB. She is also the immediate past President of the Parents of Blind Children of Utah. Within the past five years her accomplishments include getting a grant to conduct a weeklong summer camp program for blind/visually impaired children. Blind adults and college students from the NFB of Utah volunteered throughout the week at the camp, leading a variety of activities and generally acting as mentors and models for the kids. She also planned and conducted several statewide daylong parent and teacher seminars that provided information about IEPs, Braille literacy, and technology for the blind. Marla is currently working closely with the Parent and Infant Program of Utah to help educate parents with blind/visually impaired children and give support during vital transition times (early intervention to preschool, preschool to elementary). She hopes to start a positive trend in getting parents educated, empowered, and actively involved very early so that they can help their children become self-advocates in future transitions throughout school and into college and/or employment.

When her family isn’t busy with family, church, work, and school duties, Marla says that they find time to visit family in Texas, Florida, and California. Their favorite destinations include visiting Disneyland and retreating to a family cabin in Northern Utah. She explains that they love to take advantage of the ‘greatest snow on earth’ and ski and snowmobile during the winters. “Megan and Adam love to ski and are both better skiers than their mom,” says Marla. She continues, “At home we love to read, play board games together, jump on the trampoline, ride bikes, and you may catch a few wrestling matches in the family room when dad gets home from work.”

Since she met the National Federation of the Blind, Marla has a whole different perspective about the so-called obstacles and limitations imposed by blindness. Her attitude now, she explains, is that “Any limitation has the real potential to become a strength—provided our kids get the proper education, training, and skills.”

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