by Patti Chang
From the Editor: In the April issue we highlighted several programs of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and asked that other affiliates with programs they thought worthy of note send us an article or encourage us to do an interview for one.
Patti Chang is the past president of the NFB of Illinois and a member of the NFB Board of Directors. She also chairs the NFB's scholarship committee. She has risen to the challenge and has identified a program we definitely need to know about. It is an example of hands-on service, giving students job experience, offering important mentoring, and clearly demonstrating for them the value of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what she says about something special that’s happening in Illinois:
Since we are spotlighting innovative affiliate programs, I can’t resist telling you about our internship program. As far as I know, Illinois is our only affiliate hosting sponsorship of students to work. We sponsor high school and college students by funding summer internships for up to six weeks. We will pay $250 per week. A mentoring component enhances the value of the work experience.
Students apply by filling out an application which is very similar to our state scholarship form. They submit the same sort of essay and letters of recommendation. This program puts less emphasis on academics and allows us to assist non-college-bound students as much as those who are academically inclined.
The scholarship committee is responsible for choosing our winners and for mentoring the internship recipients. Once winners are chosen, they can find their own placements, or we can assist. Emphasis is placed on finding placements which relate to career goals and finding mainstream employers. Students are expected to file regular reports that analyze their employment and discuss any blindness-related adaptations or issues. Mentors discuss the reports with the students. One recipient, Michelle Wesley, received a job offer from her employer to continue after her internship in a veterinarian’s clinic. Another, Casandra Certeza, is studying for her graduate degree now.
The most recent recipient of an internship stipend, Ms. Ashley Griggs, wrote as follows to the donor who sponsored this program:
Dear Mr. Lanston:
This internship has meant a great deal to me. I would like to thank you sincerely for your assistance in this endeavor. I chose to intern at a Montessori school in the three-to-six-year-old classroom. The children and staff were lovely people, and I think we all learned from each other. The teachers and students learned a little about working with a blind individual, while I learned more about myself and my career path. This may sound overly dramatic, though I don’t mean it to sound that way; however, I have truly discovered what I am meant to do in life as a result of the eight weeks I spent working at the Montessori Academy of Chicago.
I am currently pursuing a music degree, but I am cognizant of the fact that I will need some form of supplemental income while I am establishing myself as an artist, in other words, a day job. I have been interested in the Montessori method of education for a few years now. I thought teaching young children in that setting would be perfect because many of the learning materials are tactile, but also because I approve of the behavior this method instills in children. The other aspect of this is that I also write songs for children. Before this internship I thought of a career in children's music as a side career, and my music geared toward adults would be the more prominent aspect of my artistry. After playing music for these children and seeing how happy it made them, I knew this was what I was actually meant to do.
The feelings of happiness were definitely reciprocated as well. Their reactions filled me with so much joy, more than I ever got playing for adults. Yes, the teachers were great about showing me around the classroom and explaining all the learning supplies; and yes, I am going to pursue Montessori teacher training because of this internship, but that is not why I am thanking you. It is that reciprocated joy I spoke of that will stay with me for years to come. Adults feel strange asking questions about blindness. Adults won’t give you a straight answer about a song you played. They’ll say it’s great no matter what so as not to hurt your feelings. Not kids! They say what is on their minds, which is why I love working with them. This experience marked a turning point in the way I think about my future and my career. I will never forget it. Again, I am truly thankful for your financial assistance.
As Ashley’s letter shows, this program doesn’t just give the interns experience to put on their resumes. It can change the direction of their careers. Finding a job requires diligence and persistence, developing a good resume, and interviewing well. Our applicants gain valuable experience in these areas. We all know that sometimes blind people find it especially hard to get a foot in the door to gain that all-too-valuable work experience. This is a bridge which works to help students help themselves earn that first reference from an employer. Please feel free to contact Debbie Stein, who administers our Illinois program at <email@example.com>, or me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. We are happy to brag about its success and give you tips based on our experiences.