by Donald C. Capps
From the Editor: As we prepare to celebrate the National Federation of the Blind’s seventy-fifth anniversary, this article from Donald Capps captures what it was like to be poor, blind, and a citizen of West Virginia almost sixty years ago. When we see a man who has enjoyed extraordinary success in marriage, in raising a family, and in getting and holding a job as an executive in one of the nation’s premier insurance companies, the question naturally arises as to why he would choose to give so much time and energy to helping his fellow blind. The answer emerges when we look at the importance of key experiences in his life that helped in forging a solid commitment to change. No one in the National Federation of the Blind represents this long-term commitment better than Dr. Donald C. Capps. He was the longest-serving member of the NFB Board of Directors and the president for many years of the NFB of South Carolina. Here is his story about being asked by Dr. tenBroek to serve on a Federation taskforce, what he saw, and the role it played in helping him decide that working for the betterment of his fellow blind would be a major life calling:
I first met our NFB founder and first president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, at the 1956 convention in San Francisco, but it really was in 1958 that I got to know him. In November of that year he called me to ask if I would participate in a week-long survey of programs for the blind in West Virginia. Colonial Life granted me the time, and we were off to be a part of the survey team.
Governor Underwood wanted the NFB to conduct a survey in his state, and it was our pleasure to meet him at the capitol in Charleston, where he provided me with a statement giving us authority for the team to do its work. We were assigned the Beckley area, with the responsibility of calling on low-income individuals and families, people who would now be covered under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. At that time the program recipients we surveyed were on the Aid for the Needy Blind program.
We found ourselves visiting with blind people who were in terrible poverty. The most devastating involved a visit with three blind brothers who lived in an abandoned coal mine shack. It was cold, since our visit was in November. When we knocked, one of the brothers came to the door and advised us that all three had pneumonia, and, of course, they appropriately denied our entrance. Asked about what assistance the three of them were receiving, he replied, "No assistance of any type." He also stated that each of the three brothers owned only one set of overalls, which required washing the clothes at night for wearing the next day. A chill went up and down my spine because I knew these three blind men would probably die if I did not get them some help. I returned to Beckley, called upon the welfare department, and forcefully told them to get help for these needy blind men. I later checked to verify that a doctor had called upon them, providing medicine and other much needed help.
Almost invariably, blind welfare recipients lived under horrible conditions. We traveled to where we were told that a blind teenager lived with her grandparents. Upon arriving at the mountain shack where the ground served as a floor, we met with the teenager and her grandparents. We were also greeted by a goat which lived in the shack. This was a most troubling case, and again I returned to the welfare department in Beckley to get help for them. After making calls all day long, we returned to our hotel each evening and did a memorandum on every case we worked that day. Betty cried every night at what she witnessed. Adding to her sadness was the fact that Beth was only three months old and Craig only three years of age, and she and I missed them terribly.
While I have related here two of the dramatic instances of poverty and squalor we saw and reported, there were many, far too many. I knew about the inequity faced by the blind, but, if I needed any experience to cement my commitment to a life of work for the blind, the West Virginia experience certainly accomplished that mission. While this was at times frustrating and heart-wrenching, I thank Dr. tenBroek for giving me a life-changing experience that still remains vivid in my mind more than fifty years later. His faith in asking me to go, Betty’s commitment, my commitment, and the approval of my employer helped me answer again and again the question of why I should give so much of my life and my energy to the National Federation of the Blind. Anytime I found my energy starting to flag, the answer why I should keep on giving rang clear when I visited those memories of that week in West Virginia. There I could make visible the warmth, the love, and the caring of the National Federation of the Blind in the lives of people who needed what we had to offer. Before he ever chose the title for his 1979 banquet speech, I knew that part of my life’s work was to help Dr. Kenneth Jernigan help other blind people on our journey to "the top of the stairs," and, as we approach our seventy-fifth anniversary, it makes my soul rejoice to know that Betty and I have been blessed to have done some of the work that has shaped what the National Federation of the Blind is today and what it will be for the blind of tomorrow.
Making a charitable gift can be one of the most satisfying experiences in life. Each year millions of people contribute their time, talent, and treasure to charitable organizations. When you plan for a gift to the National Federation of the Blind, you are not just making a donation; you are leaving a legacy that insures a future for blind people throughout the country. Special giving programs are available through the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
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