Future Reflections         Fall 2009

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by Treva Olivero

At the launch of the Texas CHANGE Program, two mentors with mentees on a stone structure surrounded by flowers.From the Editor: One of the most exciting programs sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute is the National Center for Mentoring Excellence, established in 2004. Coordinator Treva Olivero describes the program and its impact on the lives of participants.

After a day of physical endurance events, including a rock-climbing wall, zip line, and other activities in the high ropes challenge course, nineteen-year-old Karen Anderson faced one more obstacle. She stood at the base of the utility pole, contemplating a straight ascent at least six times greater than her own height. With nervous confidence gained during the day of conquering new challenges, she began the climb. The pole shook constantly as she made her way upward. Finally, she reached the top. Perched high above the ground, Karen thought that she had achieved her goals on the high ropes course.

Then, from below, Karen heard people cheering encouragement. "Stand up!" they shouted. "You can do it! Stand up on the top of the pole."

Karen considered the challenge. There was yet a higher goal for her to achieve. She could actually stand on this narrow perch. Or could she? The pole was shaking and she was tired. She had accomplished a great deal already by reaching the top of the pole, not to mention her achievements on other portions of the ropes course. She was tempted to stop. But voices floated up from the ground, spurring her on. "You can do it, Karen!" they insisted. "Go ahead!" Carefully, slowly, on trembling legs, Karen maneuvered herself to stand proudly at the top of the pole.

About three dozen mentees and mentors on a deck with water and trees in the background at the launch of the Texas program.This is not the story of an amazing blind young woman who overcame an obstacle on a high ropes course. It's the story of a young blind woman who realized that, with the inspiration of her mentors, she could achieve more than she had ever imagined. Karen's adventure took place in Nebraska, but it could happen anywhere. It is just one example of the impact on blind young people when they are connected with positive blind adult role models. A series of programs through the NFB Jernigan Institute's National Center for Mentoring Excellence (NCME) demonstrates the value of mentoring experiences for blind youth. Every young person needs someone to encourage her/him to dream big and do more.

In 2004 the NCME received a demonstration grant from the US Department of Education to create mentoring programs for blind youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six. In the NFB we have always known the value of mentoring. This grant allowed us to formalize programs and to demonstrate through research the power of connecting blind youth with positive blind adult role models as mentors. Our goal through this program is to increase mentees' knowledge and participation in the vocational rehabilitation process, with a resulting outcome of postsecondary academic success, high-quality employment, and community integration.

The first year of the grant was spent developing the program as a whole and getting two states ready for their first mentoring groups. The NFB Jernigan Institute worked with the state affiliates to form partnerships with the state agencies for the blind. The Louisiana Bridges Mentoring Program and Nebraskans Empowering the Blind (NEB) started out as pilot programs with their first groups of mentoring pairs. After the second year of the grant, another group of mentoring pairs was established in each participating state. In 2007 the Georgians Empowered through Mentoring Success (GEMS), Ohio Mentoring Program, Texas CHANGE (Connections Helping Another Navigate and Gain Excellence) Program, and Utah Network for Mentoring Excellence (UNME) were established. Throughout the past five years we have connected 138 blind youth with positive blind adult role models.

Karen Anderson as a 2007 NFB Scholarship winner.Mentees are connected with mentors who have good blindness skills, are successful in their chosen careers, and have a positive philosophy about blindness. For two years each pair communicates via telephone, instant messaging, and email, as well as in face-to-face meetings and quarterly group activities. Due to travel distances and the lack of public transportation, some pairs were unable to have face-to-face time together. However, they compensated through other means. Several mentors learned to use social media sources such as Facebook to communicate with their mentees in a method with which they are familiar.

Daniel Martinez lives in Brownsville, Texas, and his mentor, Ryan Strunk, lives hundreds of miles away in Austin. They connect through phone conversations. Daniel is in his first semester at the University of Texas in Brownsville, and Ryan has given him advice on how to manage a reader for his math class. "It's great to have a personal advisor," Daniel says. Another mentoring pair knew they wouldn't be able to meet as often as they liked. They read a book together, choosing one that they both would enjoy. As they discussed the book over the phone they learned a lot about each other.

The pairs that were able to meet one-on-one shared a variety of activities. These activities helped mentors and mentees grow in their relationship and helped the mentees develop more positive attitudes about blindness. Mentoring pairs went hiking, picked strawberries, learned to apply makeup, baked cookies, attended plays and movies, shopped, or simply hung out and talked.

These formal mentoring programs are structured with quarterly group activities designed to help get the mentors and mentees together. These gatherings also allow the mentees to realize and achieve their goals. Each state coordinator plans activities that are in keeping with the goals of the program. The Ohio Mentoring Program arranged for mentors and mentees to cook together and hold a progressive dinner. The Texas CHANGE Program held one of its activities at a resort where mentees learned to surf and build sand castles. UNME mentors and mentees participated in a Meet-the-Blind Month activity at the Gateway Mall in Salt Lake City. During this activity, mentors taught travel skills to mentees as they conducted a scavenger hunt. The mentees also educated the public about blindness by handing out brochures. Georgia mentoring pairs recently had an activity on a farm. Mentors and mentees explored the farm, rode four-wheelers, went horseback riding, and grilled steaks. Louisiana mentors and mentees went to a Cajun festival together and worked on navigating in crowds. This experience showed the mentees that they could attend such an event independently and have fun. Daphne Mitchell, the Louisiana state coordinator, reported, "It really stretched their confidence and showed them that the adaptive techniques we had been teaching them really work."

Two men from the Utah mentoring program take part in a high ropes course event. One walks on a rope bridge and the other climbs a horizontal utility pole.In March 2009, mentors and mentees from each of the participating states came to the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore for Future Quest, a weekend seminar. Led by staff on the education team, Future Quest included activities and workshops on topics such as interviewing skills and self-advocacy. Students participated in mock interviews and listened to job panels composed of blind professionals from a number of careers. The seminar culminated with an evening social activity, organized by the mentees and their mentors.

All of these mentoring activities, like the experience with the ropes course, have moved the youth beyond their comfort zones and pushed them to challenge themselves. These experiences have also helped the mentees build a network of blind role models whom they can call on when they run into blindness-related issues. Texas mentee Daniel Martinez comments, "In the mentoring program I have not only gained one mentor, I've gained many of them."

The mentoring program has helped prove the value of having blind individuals mentor one another. The blind youth who participated over the past two years have benefited greatly from working with their mentors. "What I've learned from Tina is to keep going and to have confidence in myself," says Kayla Weathers of Georgia. Olivia Walter of Ohio talks about her mentor and how she learned about problem solving, "[My mentor has] taught me that there are always more than five ways to do things. If one way doesn't work, then keep looking."

The key to the success of these mentoring programs is the fact that blind people learn best to deal with blindness from their exposure to other blind people. In the NCME programs all of the mentors are blind. Texas mentor Ryan Strunk explains that blind youth do their best to adjust to their blindness, but seldom are they exposed to good blind adult role models. "They're smart and they're talented and they have an idea of what they want to do," he says of the mentees, "but because of their blindness, they have no idea how to do it." Jason Souvannarath, a mentee from Utah, said of his mentor, "He's been through the ropes. He knows how it feels."

Words only begin to describe the benefit of connecting blind youth with blind mentors. The NFB Jernigan Institute created a video that shows what the mentoring program has done in the lives of the participants. The video is called "Walking the Walk: The NFB Mentorship Advantage." It can be found at <www.nfb.org/mentoring>. We encourage you to get your child connected with a blind role model who has a positive attitude about blindness.

Although the grant from the Department of Education has ended, the participating state affiliates plan to continue their programs. Other NFB affiliates are making efforts to integrate mentoring into youth programs in their states. By linking blind youth with blind adult role models, we can enable young people to achieve higher goals than they ever dreamed possible.

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