by Darian Smith
From the Editor: Darian Smith is one of the primary people working to form a community service division in the National Federation of the Blind. He believes that service can have a transformative effect on both those we serve and members of the public who observe us providing it. Here is what Darian says:
Looking back on my time as a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), I realize that that experience has given me many precious memories, a more positive attitude, and some valuable skills. I expected a lot when I decided to attend the CCB, but never did I imagine that the staff would expect so much of me. Never have I been challenged at such a basic level to question my fundamental beliefs about blindness and to demonstrate them, not only in the words I say but in the actions I take.
After graduating from the CCB in April of 2004, I began to see just how many doors might open for me if I dared to try walking through them. If I was willing to try, my new attitudes and skills would not only let me do something good but actually do something great--great for enhancing my experience, great for strengthening my self-concept, and great for helping the country I yearn to make a better place. These realizations came quickly; the courage to implement them took longer to develop.
In early 2008 I decided I would join the AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps is a government-funded network of service organizations and programs that engage people from diverse backgrounds, ages, and abilities in community service. Even before I attended the CCB as a fulltime student, my interest was piqued when I attended a 2002 summer program and observed a group of youth from the National Civilian Community Corps (an AmeriCorps program) working on the Braille library and doing other work on and around the building. Their friendliness and positive attitudes made such an impression on me that I hoped someday to do something as noble and inspirational to others as these volunteers were to me.
After completing programs at the CCB and growing up a bit, I decided in 2008 that I would take a good hard look at the AmeriCorps programs to see if there was a place for me. I applied and was interviewed. I talked about my background, my time as a student, the challenges I faced in learning to deal with blindness, and the lessons I had learned about helping people. I said that I thought AmeriCorps was the best way for me to turn my positive intentions into tangible action, and within two months I was accepted to serve.
In October I reported to the Denver campus, and there I met many great corps members, amazing team leaders, and an outstanding support staff. I was the first blind person to serve on the campus, and I faced questions about what a blind person could do. They ranged from the basic "How will you find the bathroom" to "How will you handle your tray in a food line?" Much of what I had to prove dealt with mobility: everyone thought I was smart and admired my motivation, but could I really get around by myself, and could I be competitive in situations where mobility was required?
My team leader for most of the corps year was Keara, who was kind, caring, patient, and socially aware. She also had a best friend who was blind, which was why she was picked to be my team leader. The assumption that someone with special experience or training would have to assist me turned out to be a problem throughout my training and service, but I can't say too much about Keara, her giving spirit, and her unflagging determination to see that I participated fully.
The first month of my ten-month term was devoted to training and team building. This is the routine for all corps members. In the training the team leader is the mentor, the disciplinarian, the coordinator, and the coworker who helps trainees on projects. In late October my class was inducted into the corps and went on to our first assignment. My team went to Boulder, Colorado, to work on an environmental project pulling weeds, working in irrigation ditches, and building and maintaining trails. This was hard work but well worth it, given the skills we gained.
My next assignment was in South Texas doing canvassing work. The team's job was to help people get aid as a result of the damage they suffered after hurricane Ike. The one thing that stands out for me is the Southern hospitality the residents showed our team and their unwavering, uncompromising spirit. Their generosity was nothing short of amazing; even in their time of need they expressed real concern and a commitment to helping their neighbors.
My third project was by far the most boring. I was in Alabama doing construction work, and, while members of my team climbed ladders and carried materials, I too often found myself pulling nails out of boards. Certainly this job needed doing, but it wasn't work that let me be very creative or helped me to feel that I was part of a team building something in which I could feel pride. The location of the assignment, an hour north of Tuscaloosa, also made it difficult for me to find after-hours activities. I spent a lot of time coordinating public relations and outreach events for my team and personally getting ready for the national convention.
The highlights of this part of my tour were working on an old school house, a nearly one-hundred-year-old structure we wanted to keep upright, and trying to make it through the rain storms that followed after the almost daily tornado warnings. In this part of my tour I applied for a team leader position on one campus. This in turn led to four other interviews. Unfortunately, I was not offered a position with any of the campuses, but I was determined not to let this disappointment detract from what I came to the corps to do.
My final project was in Denver. I was selected to be a crew leader in a Summer of Service program that engages at-risk youth in community service projects. The crew leaders make sure that structure is being maintained and that the young people are working as a team. The job also includes maintaining vital team records and a list of the team’s accomplishments while overseeing its finances. The team I led camped and worked in the local community and learned something about life for young people who are involved in gangs. We did some serious work, but we had time for fun and relaxation as well. We went to the movies and to several parks. One was the Lakeside Amusement Park, where I had my first ever funnel cake.
Graduation day was a proud moment for the youth participants in the team I headed. It was amazing to see how quickly they had bonded. We were surprised at what we felt; separation after only a few short weeks found us shedding tears and vowing to stay in touch.
A few weeks later it was finally time for my team to reflect and celebrate as our time in the program drew to a close. On July 23, 2009, AmeriCorps NCCC Class XV graduated. Again there were tears of joy and sorrow, for these ten months had forever changed all of us. Our call to serve had helped, if only in a small way, to better the parts of the world we touched, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and what we gave came back to us in blessings and memories we will carry throughout our lives.
Looking back, I see that my experience was not everything I had wanted it to be. Not everyone reacted to blindness as I hoped they would, but my participation did make a difference in perceptions--my own and the perceptions of others. This experience revealed things about me that have caused me to look more deeply into who I am, the service I want to give, and the person I want to become. I have had to come face to face with some shortcomings in myself, but I've also realized that I have an important asset. I am not afraid to try, not afraid to push the envelope, and not so afraid of failing that I am content to stay within my comfort zone.
Now that I've finished with the corps and have gone back to school, I've realized what a major impact service can have on others and on those who serve. Nothing is more fulfilling than finding a cause greater than oneself. I believe that our chapters can and should be involved in service and that, by visibly serving others, we will go a long way toward changing the perception of blind people. Through service we can move from being perceived as the takers who must be served to being the providers who not only do for ourselves but care enough to help in our communities. Through our words and, more important, through our actions, we will convince our fellow citizens that we have something to offer, and through service we will help to change what it means to be blind.
I'll leave you with a short reflection connecting service to blindness. When I went to the CCB, it was to learn skills and attitudes that would help me be the best I can. Service was my way of putting the theory I had been taught to the test. It was my way of figuring out whether the attitudes I thought I believed were things I could talk about and whether I believed them enough to translate them into action. Service has given me a way to show both me and the world that I can go to unfamiliar areas, meet new people, and make significant contributions. The CCB was the first step; service was the second. Both are steps on the staircase to independence and interdependence, and I commend both to all of you for the liberation climbing these stairs brings to all of us.