Braille Monitor                                    March 2018

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Well Digger’s Wisdom

by Ryan Strunk

Ryan StrunkFrom the Editor: Ryan Strunk is the newly-elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. He is bright, energetic, and insightful. He is also painfully honest, especially when it comes to self-reflection. What follows is a speech he gave to the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota before he was elected:

I attended my first NFB convention in 1990, my second in 1991. And I was really proud of this fact. Never mind that my third was in 2001. It was a real badge of honor for me.

So in 2002, when I was introducing myself at the secret scholarship meeting, I took that badge and pinned it right up on my chest to score points with the committee. “I’ve been a member of the Federation for a long time,” I told that committee—and just as important—my fellow scholarship winners. “I drank Federation juice and ate Federation crunch for breakfast.” I look back on that now, and I hate how arrogant and hollow and, well, silly that sounded.

Because first, let’s be real. It’s not a good joke. And Federation Crunch would not be a good cereal. I mean, I could handle the white cane marshmallows, and I could even eat Whozit, but I draw the line at biting into a guide dog corn puff.

Second, though, and way more important, who did I think I was? I was born in 1983. Do the math. In 1990, while Dr. Jernigan was delivering “The Federation at Fifty,” I was in child care. In 1991, while Dr. Maurer was “Reflecting the Flame,” I was eating crab corn chowder at the chocoholic bar at the top of the Hyatt Regency.

I was listening to an interview with Cory Booker recently. You might have heard of him. He’s a senator from New Jersey. And in it he talked about how he grew up a solidly middle-class black kid in the 1960s. He said he had all these privileges that others at the time didn’t, and it kind of went to his head. So he’s walking around one day all puffed up, and his dad said something to him that struck a chord with me—this Chinese proverb that’s been rattling around in my head ever since I heard it. He said to Cory, “Son, never forget. You are drinking from a well your ancestors dug.”

My parents figured out I was blind when I was six months old, and since they didn’t really have any idea of what to do, they threw themselves on the mercy of Kim Bosshart, this pretty new teacher of blind students with some pretty revolutionary ideas about how to teach blind kids: things like put a cane in their hand when they’re old enough to walk, teach them slate and stylus before the Braille writer, teach them Braille even if they have some residual vision.

Incidentally, at the same time, the eye doctor I had as a kid was telling my parents I could read two-inch tall print … with a magnifying glass. Kim, thankfully, knew better.

She had me baking cookies at six years old, walking around the block under sleepshades at seven, finding random addresses by knocking on complete strangers’ doors and asking for directions at eight. By junior high I was ordering my own books and introducing myself to my teachers as “blind.” By the way, it was Kim who made me say “blind,” even though I wanted to use “visually impaired.”

We gave Kim Bosshart, now Kim Adams, the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award in 1989, and for good reason. She was, and still is, an amazing person.

And I never really got that back then. I took for granted how hard she worked, how all those evenings and weekends that I complained about having to give up were evenings and weekends she voluntarily gave up. I figured that my success was because of my hard work and my amazing brain. But they wouldn’t have meant a thing without someone to push me to work and to fill up that brain with radical new ideas.

You are drinking from a well your ancestors dug.

Summers, when Kim wasn’t around, I went to lots of summer camps. There was SKIP, the Summer Kids Independence Program; there was PI, Project Independence; and when I got older, there was Winner Fest, which was a perfect time to hang out with girlfriends—I mean do awesome seminars on blindness. All these programs were put on by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind, but a whole bunch of the staff there were NFB members, blind role models who reinforced all those same ideas I was learning from Kim.

When we took a walk down the gravel lane at 5:00 in the morning to experience the sunrise in the middle of the forest, it was blind people who led the way. When we made foil pack dinners around the campfire, blind people built and tended that campfire. When I got caught sneaking out to spend time with my girlfriend, it was—no that didn’t happen. No really. It didn’t.

Anyway.

I imagine Amy Buresh can tell you some stories. But that’s the point. Right? She was there, along with so many others, sharing her time and her experience with me to shape me into a more confident, independent blind person. Thanks, Amy, and please give my love to Shane, too.

You are drinking from a well your ancestors dug.

Mom. Of course mom did her part too. She was an active member of the Nebraska Parents of Blind Children and the Lioness Club. She helped put on golf tournaments and craft shows to raise money so that Nebraska blind kids could have scholarships and get good technology. She drove me to those summer camps, to the white cane banquets, and she held me accountable to those same high standards that Kim and my blind role models had for me.

And in 2002, when I won that scholarship, she called me in my room at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville to tell me that she was downstairs in the lobby, that she had come all the way to Kentucky because she was proud of me and she wanted to support me.

You are drinking from a well your ancestors dug.

There comes a point, and it’s one of my favorite things about our organization, that someone comes up to you and hands you a shovel, and they suggest that maybe you’d like to dig for a little while. For me, that first opportunity came from Carlos Serván, he was the Nebraska affiliate president at the time, and he suggested that I should run for president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, even though I had no leadership experience.

And then it was Jason Ewell, calling me in 2002 to invite me to take part in NFB Corps, where they dropped me in the middle of Seattle and Knoxville and Burlington and Pensacola to build new chapters of the NFB. It was Angela Wolf, inviting me in 2003 to serve as treasurer of the National Association of Blind Students, and then calling me again in 2005 to tell me I should run for president. It was Fred Schroeder in 2006, suggesting that he could get me a sweet gig teaching Braille. All I had to do was pick up everything I owned and move to Hawaii. No big deal, right? And all that time I was learning and growing, starting to find my feet, those leaders were right there. Encouraging me and offering me their wisdom.

You are drinking from a well your ancestors dug.

I learned something, in NFB Corps, in NABS, in Hawaii and Texas and Minnesota. I learned just how incredibly lucky I had been. Because I met people who didn’t have the same opportunities I had.

There was the forty-three-year-old woman in Hawaii who still lived at home with her parents because they didn’t believe she could ever live on her own. She worked hard and she learned Braille, and after she graduated, she worked in a sheltered shop.

There was the senior support group in Florida, some twenty-odd people who sat in a conference room every month and listened to magazine articles on tape telling them that a cure was just around the corner. When Rachel Olivero and I went to one of their meetings, we had the privilege of hearing their president dole out this sage advice: “Men, let me tell you. When you go over to somebody else’s house, and you have to pee, sit down!” And being green and wet behind the ears and drunk on independence, I actually argued with the guy.

There was the dad who lost his sight a year ago and wondered if he could ever provide for his family again. There was the guy who went blind when he was hit by a drunk driver who just wanted a job, the kid who graduated valedictorian and never learned to tie his shoes or sign his name, the college student full of promise who was too afraid to walk to class—you know these stories! Maybe you even are one. And if you are, God am I glad you’re here.

Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

I don’t want to lose any more Einsteins. I don’t want to lose any more tenBroeks or Jernigans or Maurers or Riccobonos or Scanlans or Dunnams or Jacobsens or Sanders or Baileys or Wenzels or Aunes or Heberts or anyone else in this room because we weren’t there.

So here I am, and here is my promise to you. When you need my time or my energy, you will have it. When you need my nights and my weekends, I will give them and gladly, and if we ever have to fight because someone wants to hold us back, bring it on.

I have drunk from the well my ancestors dug, and I will never forget that. I stand here with you now, shoulder to shoulder, digging the well that blind children and blind seniors and all those who come after us will drink from. My brothers, my sisters, let’s work together to create a better tomorrow. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind.

Leave a Legacy

For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.

With your help, the NFB will continue to:

Plan to Leave a Legacy
Creating a will gives you the final say in what happens to your possessions and is the only way to be sure that your remaining assets are distributed according to your passions and beliefs. Many people fear creating a will or believe it’s not necessary until they are much older. Others think that it’s expensive and confusing. However, it is one of the most important things you will do, and with new online legal programs it is easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary. Visit www.nfb.org/planned-giving or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422, for more information. Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.

Invest in Opportunity
The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back. A donation to the National Federation of the Blind allows you to invest in a movement that removes the fear from blindness. Your investment is your vote of confidence in the value and capacity of blind people and reflects the high expectations we have for all blind Americans, combating the low expectations that create obstacles between blind people and our dreams.
           
In 2016 the NFB:

Just imagine what we’ll do next year, and, with your help, what can be accomplished for years to come. Below are just a few of the many diverse, tax-deductible ways you can lend your support to the National Federation of the Blind.

Vehicle Donation Program
The NFB now accepts donated vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, or recreational vehicles. Just call (855) 659-9314 toll-free, and a representative can make arrangements to pick up your donation—it doesn’t have to be working. We can also answer any questions you have.

General Donation
General donations help support the ongoing programs of the NFB and the work to help blind people live the lives they want. Donate online with a credit card or through the mail with check or money order. Visit www.nfb.org/make-gift for more information.

Bequests
Even if you can’t afford a gift right now, including the National Federation of the Blind in your will enables you to contribute by expressing your commitment to the organization and promises support for future generations of blind people across the country. Visit www.nfb.org/planned-giving or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422, for more information.

Pre-Authorized Contribution

Through the Pre-Authorized Contribution (PAC) program, supporters sustain the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind by making recurring monthly donations by direct withdraw of funds from a checking account or a charge to a credit card. To enroll, visit www.nfb.org/make-gift, and complete the Pre-Authorized Contribution form, and return it to the address listed on the form.

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