Mentorship and Empowerment: Cricket’s Scholarship and Federation Story
by Cricket Bidleman
I was peripherally introduced to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) via the Braille Readers are Leaders program—my family attended a national convention in Dallas in 2010. As an almost sixth grader who was the only blind student at school, I was awed by the size of the hotel and the mass tapping of canes. At the time, I didn’t realize how deeply our organization would affect my life.
In 2015 and 2016, I attended the Engineering Quotient (EQ) and STEM2U programs. In the fall of 2016, my senior year in high school, I applied for a national scholarship. As a low-income student, I valued every penny that would contribute to my college success. While I had done youth activities in the past, the scholarship process was when my Federation journey really began.
A few weeks after the deadline, Scott LaBarre called to say that I was a scholarship finalist. The amount of funding sources I had applied to meant that they all eventually blurred together, so I was surprised. I remembered his big voice from the Pre-Authorized Contribution (PAC) Plan song at the previous convention, so I was slightly starstruck.
I expected Scott to hang up after five minutes, but he stayed on the phone with me for two or three hours, patiently answering mundane questions (“Do you always do the PAC Plan song live?”), serious ones (“How can I help the organization?”), and probing ones (“What changes have you observed in NFB philosophy over the years?”).
I signed up for and introduced myself to innumerable email lists and people. “Dear whomever this maybe concerns?” I remember writing to some. “I’m super excited to join y’all. What should I know? What should I do? Who should I meet?” I got a surprising number of welcoming responses. This organization really is, in some ways, a family.
Over the next few months, I began volunteering with various divisions, and forming lifelong bonds with leaders and members. The dynamic with my adoptive family became turbulent as I decided to do the PREP program at BLIND, Inc. I was adopted when I was young. My parents were stringently against the decision, and I doubt that I would’ve had the courage to go through with it if not for the love and support of Kathryn Webster, who was the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) president at the time. She continued to be a coach during the program, where she happened to be teaching that summer.
I went to the 2017 national convention, met my scholarship class, and engaged with countless others involved in the Federation. Each day, I worked with another mentor. Each day, I grew to understand other aspects of blindness. Each day, I felt increasingly empowered.
My college years were emotionally and medically difficult, but I had endless support from Federationists, and I still feel inspired by their caring. My adoptive family was unsupportive when I developed another disability, and there were some aspects of that which my classmates were unable to empathize with. One summer, I had a severe allergic reaction to medication and ended up in the hospital for weeks, and Bryan Bashin and Scott LaBarre called and just listened to me cry. I needed them more than I realized at the time. They were more supportive than my adoptive family. Leaders, like Ever Lee Hairston, still constantly remind me of my rights, and encourage me to never settle for anything less than justice.
I eventually split from my adoptive family because they had been taking advantage of me financially for years—a tragically common occurrence among the disabled—and Federationists helped me through it. I stayed with Federationists for the first few months of Covid-19 in 2020. I had brain surgery in July of 2022, and the outpouring of support was incredibly touching. Maurice Peret, another leader in our organization, helped me get a job here at the Jernigan Institute after one of our career fairs. When I announced on Facebook that I would be moving to Baltimore, many Federation members offered help, places to stay temporarily…. I, who grew up only in California and Hawaii and had been staying with my adopted family in Arizona, felt welcome on the East Coast—a slightly foreign land with unheard-of foods like scrapple...and then there’s snow….
Now I work at our national headquarters. I could have spent this post talking about our blindness initiatives or legislative advocacy—essential parts of our external-facing work—but I wanted to illustrate the personal relationships that form from the scholarship program. Whether or not you are a finalist, you have opportunities to cultivate irreplaceable bonds, to find empathy that in some places only blind people can provide, and to feel the love and support that I have been fortunate to have for the past few years.
In short, the scholarship program is much more than some money and technology, though that of course was integral to my education. I graduated with a communications degree from Stanford University, and am almost finished with my master’s in journalism from there as well. I cannot thank this organization or my mentors and friends enough for everything that I have been privileged to gain. We are not perfect, but neither is any other group. I am confident that with our desire for positive progress, and with the love and dedication of our leaders and members, we will continue to move forward. In the meantime, I encourage every student seeking a scholarship, a family, a mission—maybe all of these—to become involved.
Content note: adoptive refers to a result of the adoption of a person
2023 Scholarship Program Applications Open