Braille Monitor               January 2024

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Deep in the Federation Lies a World of Breakthroughs

by Michelle Felix Garcia

From the Editor: Michelle lives in Mexico. She has a degree in music from San Diego State University where she graduated summa cum laude. One of her goals is to bring to Mexico what she sees in America when it comes to advocacy, laws, and services. Michelle was a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind from January 9, 2023, through September 21, 2023. Fortunately, this allowed her to attend the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Houston. Like many of the articles we have been running lately, hers describes her convention experience; her doubt about whether she wanted to go, whether she could handle the crowds, and whether she would enjoy the experience. Here are her conclusions:

“I don’t know if I want to do this,” I said, with visible hesitation. I had requested to talk to Stefanie Parris after some days with anxiety gratuitously creeping into my mind. With a gentle voice and a calm smile on her face, she answered: “Michelle, I believe you should go. You have a constant curiosity for things and an endless desire for learning. If you attend this convention, I think you will love it.”

Was she right? She knew me really well. Stefanie is my home management instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind, a beautiful place where trainees cook meals for each other, discover the wonders of the world through independent travel, lift each other up, and in the process, find themselves, their limitless potential, and an unstoppable confidence they didn’t even know they possessed.

Stef taught me how to pour hot water into a cup to make myself a hot chocolate on my very first day, when I was extremely scared I would get hurt. With love, patience, and dedication, CCB instructors prove to students time and time again that there is nothing to fear about blindness and that life has an infinity of surprises to offer if only we are brave enough to get out of our comfort zone. Maybe she had a point, I concluded.

My flying experience is relatively little. I have the privilege of being Mexican, from a small peaceful city called Puerto Peñasco, with stunning beaches and a bustling boardwalk. We have no public transportation, and the town is not very accessible to walk in. I came to the Center in January of this year, having never crossed a street on my own before in my twenty-two years of living, and a sighted guide always accompanied me to any place I wanted to go. Now in Colorado, one of my long-term goals was to learn how to fly back home. After only three months of training, Martin, my travel teacher, believed in me enough to practice the one-bus, three-train route to get to the Denver International Airport. Thanks to our relentless determination, I flew alone to see my parents for Easter. The takeoff and my mom’s teary-eyed reaction seeing her daughter so sure of herself going down the escalator without holding anyone else’s hand are precious moments I’ll never forget.

On June 30 at 4:30 a.m., Coldplay’s “Amazing Day” rang in my phone’s alarm clock. I got out of bed, not knowing what to expect. Surely a whole new world of new insight awaited. The lessons began from the moment I had to carry luggage down my eighteen apartment steps. I quickly figured it out.

Time goes fast, and convention was now upon us. It was a calm, sleepy ride to the airport. For a second, I was nervous because an airline employee took my bags, and I thought I’d never see them again. Later I learned this was a normal part of the check-in process. We all received Braille tags to make luggage identification easy. At the sound of tapping canes, dragging suitcases, boarding announcements, and fifty lively people on an airplane, I felt resolute and energized to make this happen.

We had a warm welcome in Houston, figuratively and literally. But the heat didn’t stop us from venturing out into a city most of us had never been to before, using our newly-acquired orientation and mobility skills. When it comes to travel, pizza is an excellent motivator, and a group of friends and I took to the streets to eat at a great nearby restaurant.

Among the animated conversations and the great company, I had forgotten the incessant doubts I’d initially come with. For some reason, I swore I wouldn’t know how to get around in the hotel, even being scared enough to think that I would not find my sleeping room at night. My argument made no sense, taking into account that for my birthday I had my parents come from Mexico and guided them through the Denver light rail to find an ice cream place in the heart of the city near the 16th Street Mall.

My questions quickly vanished as we took the evening to explore the hotel. We read every single Braille sign we came upon and accidentally found what we believe were the banquet kitchens, mountains of Braille books, tactile games and yellow Frisbees we later made fly. My inner nerd cannot help mentioning how I went around the entire Ballroom of the Americas, set up with fancy tables and chairs, until I found the soundboard. My major at university was music recording tech, and audio is my greatest passion in life. I wouldn’t stop until I saw it. By the end of the day, I felt very comfortable with a couple floors and ready to get some rest. By the way, I did find my room.

Saturday presented multiple opportunities for learning that I wouldn’t let go. There were interesting expositions of smart, accessible kitchen appliances, but what I took most away from was the Job Seekers Seminar. I have been actively looking for employment for a while, and I was very inspired by the speakers discussing networking strategies in person and on LinkedIn, when and how to disclose our blindness, and how to turn an employer’s shocked reaction into an advantage and making a company realize the value of hiring a blind person for our brilliant ingenuity, flexibility, and natural problem-solving abilities.

Talking about problem solving, in the afternoon I felt a strong desire for coffee. When my parents visited me last June, I went to their hotel to swim in the pool and asked my dad to teach me how to use a hotel coffee maker since they are smaller and different from the usual ones at home. Feeling armed with the necessary knowledge, I rushed to my hotel room to find a coffee maker with two filter trays. “In which of the two should I put the pouch?” I thought, puzzled. I chose the right because that must be right. And, to my bewilderment, I only got hot, clear water as a result. Later I learned I could brew two cups at the same time. But this was one of the many hilarious joys that come when you are a newbie first-timer.

What a first-timer I was. I had been eagerly looking forward to Sunday because the NFB’s Job Fair was hands-down one of the events I wanted to attend the most. I had taken time to prepare multiple versions of my resume, but it turns out that the day before our flight to Texas, CCB students had the chance to attend an opera in Central City. With the excitement this performance brought, I forgot the copies in my locker. Upon that realization, I panicked for two seconds and started looking for solutions. Four hours before the career fair, Charles, a CCB cane travel instructor and employment coordinator, asked if I had my documents; I was ashamed to admit I did not. Later I dialed the front desk asking if there was a business center in the hotel that I could use as a printing resource, and a mailing store on the third floor saved my back.

With six resumes in hand, wearing black dress pants, a nice burgundy blouse, and heels, I felt ready to take on the world. But not so fast, especially for an introvert like me. Putting my name out there, introducing myself to strangers, and talking about my skills did not come easy at all, but I persevered through and accomplished it seven times. The hardest part was standing in front of people I already knew and talking to them as possible future colleagues. It was extraordinarily intimidating, but I believe it is an essential part of my development as a human being to face my fears. After all, if you never try, you’ll never know. I call this event a total success. Navigating thirty-two tables among a sea of crowded lines is something I feel very proud of having done.

At the Colorado Center, we are truly lucky, because throughout all of convention we are assigned caring, experienced staff members who check in with students daily and ask us about our needs, priorities, and concerns. I had the most amazing mentor. Chris works with the senior program, and she took the time out of her busy day to invite me for lunch. I let her know about my shortage of time for meals, and she let me shadow her to learn how to get food delivery to a hotel. Thanks to her, I did not starve.

Upon hearing how slow my elevator experience was, she took it upon herself to give me an O&M lesson on how to take the spiral stairs. After her handy tricks, my approach for getting places changed drastically, saving me lots of time and not wearing so much on my patience. She even invited me to attend the Braille Book Fair and the 2023 Talent Showcase. We had a great time picking titles and watching the concert together. I was blessed to have her kindness, encouragement, and guidance, making my convention experience even more memorable.

The opportunities for meeting people were everywhere, and I was excited to make new connections. In total, I attended twenty-eight different meetings. I visited the Presidential Suite, where I met Mark Riccobono. I was very glad to tell the Texas affiliate in person that I deeply enjoyed the mariachi with which they welcomed all the Mexican population that showed up to Houston as part of the organized blind movement. As soon as I heard the first notes, I screamed like crazy. I bet every single person from the Colorado delegation knew where I was from. Furthermore, the CCB gave us the opportunity to work two shifts at the Independence Market, where I sold Domino sets, Braille games, and white canes. It was a wonderful chance to practice marketing, a skill I didn’t know I had. At one point I was asked to be a marshal, meaning to yell out “elevators this way” so that people could more quickly get where they were going. I had surely benefitted from these human talking signs myself, and it was now my turn to be one. This pushed me to break my shy tendencies and help others at the same time.

A highlight for me was the last general session. I signed up to interpret the speeches into Spanish and realized that it’s much harder than I thought. But with practice comes improvement, and I had so much fun translating information in real time.

Before the banquet, I couldn’t leave the building without performing one last bit of mischief. I went up to the sound booth to meet the person who mixes and played back the music for the general sessions. He let me touch his board, and we exchanged contact information. I can’t wait to see whether I too can collaborate with audio for the Federation, since it is an organization I believe in. I am a witness to their influence.

Thanks to the NFB’s philosophy, I will never be the same. There’s no doubt it has changed my life.

I overflow with gratitude to the Colorado Center for the Blind for the wealth of things it has taught me. I am forever beholden to my instructors for the personal growth their confidence has led to and the strong belief in myself they have imparted every single day through their structured discovery challenges.

I found myself in the CCB kitchen working on chocolate chip cookies when I heard Stefanie’s voice. I thanked her for having encouraged me to go to convention, and she asked “So, did you love it?” My enormous smile said it all.

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