Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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Friends Forever!

by Pamela Gebert

Dr. and Mrs. Maurer enjoy meeting Julia Gebert in a hotel hallwayLast July my eleven-year-old daughter, Julia, and I flew thousands of miles from Alaska to Orlando, Florida, to attend our first National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) conference. We joined thousands of others at the National Federation of the Blind convention, which was held within the walls of the magnificent Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel.

On the first morning of the conference we attended the NOPBC welcoming gathering. We found ourselves among several seasoned convention participants, some of whom were founding NOPBC members and have been involved with the organization for decades. Their children are now adults, yet here they were, contributing their energies and life experiences to the conference. We also found that we were in the company of countless other conference rookies. After only a few short hours immersed in the dynamic, informative, and positive environment of the NOPBC convention, I was hooked! When you attend an NOPBC conference, what will catch your heart first is the unparalleled beauty of the connections with people who intimately appreciate the road you and your family are traveling.

The conference began with an informal gathering of young blind children with the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Marc Maurer. As he sat on the floor among them, the children shared stories of growing up blind. They talked about the benefits of using a cane and the virtues of being able to read a great Braille book. They compared the modern electronic Braillers with the old faithful Perkins Braillewriter.

The conference continued with presentations by dedicated NFB leaders who teach by example what we should expect of our blind children. Active, capable Federationists give children and their parents a better understanding of a blind person's potential. Like all young people, our blind children need good role models to help them develop realistic goals and a positive self-image. Parents who become active with the NOPBC and the NFB know that there are hundreds and thousands of blind people who are making significant contributions to our society. They exhibit good blindness skills, incorporate an exemplary philosophy on blindness into their everyday lives, and are successful in their chosen careers.

Julia Gebert talks to Dr. Abraham Nemeth After the morning introductions, the children attended a fun and lighthearted workshop called "Clowning Around." The parents attended the first of many NOPBC workshops. Concurrent sessions were held, and there was something for everyone. The parents of infants and toddlers, school-age children, and older children preparing for college all found relevant and intriguing workshop choices. Topics included literacy for children of all abilities, technologies that may benefit blind children, and what the law says about getting assistive technology into a child's IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Experienced parents shared resources and information for preparing a child for life after high school.

One workshop was presented by a confident, well-groomed young lady who is a member of the National Association of Blind Students. She led an insightful discussion on how parents and teachers can facilitate the development of social skills and friendships. In another workshop parents heard from a blind adult about the skills a child needs to leave the nest and establish an independent life.

Over the next few days, parents encountered several other valuable seminar opportunities. In a session on age-appropriate expectations, the presenter stressed the importance of keeping our expectations high so as not to doom our children to failure. For families new to Braille, there were hands-on workshops for learning the basics of Braille reading and writing. Parents of teenagers received valuable advice on helping their children find summer and part-time jobs and preparing them for college. They obtained tips for getting through the college application process and surviving freshman year from seasoned parents and blind college students.

There just wasn't time for one person to go to everything, but I hated to miss out on anything that was offered. It didn't take long for me and my new convention friends to figure out that we must divide and conquer. We agreed to meet at the end of the day to share notes on highlights of each session.

My mother used to say that your best friends in life are people you have yet to meet. Those words seemed prophetic as Julia and I connected with one amazing new friend after another. An introduction to one particular family was unforeseen yet most appreciated.

The evening began with plans to meet for dinner and take a trip to the ice cream parlor for dessert. Within minutes of meeting and sharing a little bit of information, we moms looked each other in the eyes and knew there was an instant connection. I had goosebumps on my arms and tears welling in my eyes--only moments after meeting!

Over dinner, as we compared family stories, we realized just how parallel our experiences have been. Our girls are the same age and in the same grade in school; they have endured strikingly similar medical challenges, surgeries, and treatments since they were infants; they are both very small for their age and receive the same daily injections of medications. The girls also found much in common. They enjoyed chatting about music and Braille books. They talked nonstop from their initial introduction until the evening was over. It was as if they were, indeed, longtime friends. They truly have so much in common and so very much to share. In a decidedly heartfelt moment, the girls turned toward one another and spontaneously cheered, "New friends!" Then they yelled, "Friends forever!"

Serendipitous meetings such as this one are almost commonplace at an NOPBC conference. The conference inspires understanding, reflection, enthusiasm, hope, and serenity. In the convention hallways adult Federationists stroll by in lively dialogue; children sing, chat, and recommend favorite book titles and authors to their friends; guide dogs maneuver to and fro with their handlers; and of course, underlying it all, is the the rhythmic tapping of a thousand long white canes.

When you come to an NFB convention, the dynamic and supportive culture will reel you in. The energizing atmosphere encourages great conversations. People talk about education principles, IEPs, legal challenges, and preparing children for college life and beyond. They describe camps that teach blindness skills and scholarships for blind students. All of the possibilities for parents and their blind children truly come alive within the walls of the convention hall.

The NOPBC conference comes alive because of our families. They come from every corner of the country, bringing remarkable insight, talents, and experience. To a degree rarely found in other consumer groups, the parents sustain a stimulating and cooperative environment while nurturing a wonderfully supportive and open atmosphere.

The conference comes alive because of the seminar presenters. Guest lecturers from many fields contribute to the NOPBC's exceptional conference offerings, providing workshops and lectures on a wide range of pertinent topics.

The conference comes alive because of our NOPBC leadership. Whether teaching or guiding discussions; whether from the perspective of an academic, an author, a parent, or a rehabilitation specialist; the offerings of the NOPBC and the National Federation of the Blind are at the forefront of support, training, information, and advocacy for blind children and their families.

The whole convention comes alive because of our children. Many of them have grown up attending NFB conventions every year. They have now left their family homes, yet they maintain a profound attachment to the National Federation of the Blind and to the children who follow in their footsteps. They employ the skills, principles, and qualities of character honed at NFB conventions to achieve extraordinary professional distinction. They are leaders in classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms, and boardrooms across the land. They are private entrepreneurs, lawyers, parents, and champions for blind people and their causes. Despite the demands of school schedules or careers, NOPBC's alumni and their families remain valued and committed members of the NFB community throughout their lives.

Good ideas make a difference in the world. The National Federation of the Blind convention is a place for people who love to share ideas; who believe in the abilities of blind people; who are interested in public policy, business, information technologies, and human needs and perceptions; and who pursue the best possible futures for blind children. You'll find a community dedicated to excellence and to the education of our children. As parents, we strive to offer our children the skills, the confidence, and the courage to find fulfillment in their futures. At the NFB convention, parents and children join together to create a unique community of ideas, information, and exchange of experience. The NFB website will give you a sense of the organization's community and commitment. Better yet, come to a national convention and spend time connecting with a vibrant, creative, and welcoming community. I did, and decided that this was the place for Julia and the rest of our family. My family and I look forward to meeting you at next year's convention in Dallas, Texas!

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