by Marc Maurer
by Crystal McClain
by Jennifer Dunnam
by Ramona Walhof
I’m Not Lost
by Abraham Nemeth, Ph.D.
The Value of Greeting Cards
by Donald Capps
Watermelons, Sharp Knives, and Peace
by Bruce A. Gardner
Fighting Every Step of the Way
by Barbara Pierce
by Barbara Walker
This is book eighteen in the Kernel Book series. It takes its name from a sort of code phrase which has grown up between me and my daughter, Dianna. “Oh, wow!” has come to mean, “Listen! Pay Attention! This is Important!”
This, of course, is the theme not of just this present Kernel Book but of the seventeen which have preceded it. With some four million books in circulation and tens of thousands of repeat readers, the series has become an important part of our effort to change what it means to be blind.
Kernel Book readers have listened. They have paid attention. They have understood the importance of what we are trying to say. Increasingly they are helping us bring our message to others.
And just what is that message? Simply put it is this: We who are blind are not all that much different from you. Sure, we don’t see. So we have to find other ways to do for ourselves the things you use your eyes to help you do. But in the ways that really count, we are really pretty much like you. We are, that is, if we have the chance to try.
This is where you come in and why these Kernel Books are so important. Once you get to know us—our fears and frustrations, our triumphs and successes—you will give us that chance to try and will urge others to do the same.
In addition to the chance to try, two other things are of vital importance—training and belief. Many of the techniques we need to use to get things done we can think up on our own. Some methods are simple and obvious, but this is not always the case. Sometimes it helps to talk to others who have faced and solved the same problems. Just knowing that someone else has found a way to accomplish a task and believes that you can, too, often makes the difference between success and failure.
Can a blind woman help with the clean-up in the church kitchen? Does Santa read Braille? Does color have any meaning for a blind person? Can a blind man help you when you are lost?
These are questions you will find in the pages of this book, and the people you will meet are friends of mine, colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind. I want them to become your friends, too.
I want you to join with us as part of the family of the National Federation of the Blind—blind men and women and their sighted friends and neighbors, working together to bring hope and opportunity to the lives of blind children and adults in this country.
In other words, I’m saying to you, “Listen! Pay Attention! This is Important!” Or, more simply, now that you know Dianna’s and my code, “Oh Wow!”
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by Marc Maurer
When my daughter Dianna wants me to know that something is important, she says, “Remember, Dad, ‘Oh, Wow!’” With this small phrase she urges me to recognize the value of the small triumphs and successes that come our way.
My wife Patricia and I (both of us blind) have two children: David, who is sixteen, and Dianna, who is just turning thirteen—both sighted. Sometimes I am reminded that not all of the brains came into the family when the parents arrived. Each of our children offers us knowledge that we might not otherwise have possessed.
One December I was encouraging David to modify his behavior; I told him that if he wasn’t good, he might not get any presents for Christmas. He responded by saying, “You like Christmas so much that you can’t help giving me a present.” He was right. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without my giving away presents, and my children are prime targets for them. But I didn’t want David to know he had hit the nail so squarely on the noggin.
Part of the reason for giving is to express the love that I have for my family, but part of it is intended to train my children to know the value that exists in helping others. I like to show my children the value of giving by example.
One Saturday afternoon on a snowy day in January, I was baking bread in my kitchen. A knock came to my back door, and when I answered it, I found a stranger there. He seemed to be a fairly big man, maybe twenty-five or thirty years old. His language was quite good—he spoke in complete sentences without broken phrases. He told me he needed money—maybe twenty or thirty dollars—because he wanted to get downtown. The price of bus fare was at that time about a dollar, so this made me uneasy.
I live in Baltimore, Maryland, a city with all manner of people in it. I hope to be generous with my neighbors, but I don’t want to be taken in, and I want to give my assistance in a way that won’t cause danger to me or my family.
I told the man that I didn’t have the money he wanted; the best I could do was three or four dollars. He said he had to have more than that, so I told him I was sorry, but I couldn’t help, and I shut the door. I wondered if it had been the right thing to do.
A few minutes later the knock came again. The same man was at my door, and he told me that he was trying to find his way to a job interview, but he was cold, and he needed a coat. The Bible says that if a person has two coats and his neighbor has none, the person with two should give one to his neighbor. I went and found a coat, a hat, and a pair of gloves, and I gave them to the stranger. He seemed desperate, and I hoped my small gift would help him.
Another time, a different man came to my door with a very elaborate story. He said that his car had run out of gas and that because it had stopped in the middle of an intersection, somebody had smashed into it. It was not his own car, he said, but his father’s. He needed to have the machine towed to a repair shop, which would cost fifty dollars. In fact, the tow truck was even then on its way.
The man had thirty-three dollars and fifteen cents, and he needed the other sixteen dollars and eighty-five cents to get his father’s car out of the intersection and into the hands of the repair shop. I gave the man twenty dollars and wished him well.
Within a couple of weeks, he was back. This time the story was that he had been locked out of his house and that his baby brother (only two years old) was in there alone. He needed a locksmith to let him get inside, and he didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He had only twenty-one dollars and fifty-eight cents, and he needed fifty dollars. I decided the coincidence was too great. I did not give the man the difference.
My children ask me for things all the time, and I try to give them what I think is good for them. What they want is not always money. Sometimes it is attention; sometimes it is help with the homework; sometimes an interpretation of incidents that occur in their lives.
Dianna is in the seventh grade. She works hard in school and gets good grades. She plays on the basketball team and takes piano lessons, and she likes to learn how to do things on the computer. She also likes recognition for the good things she does, and she tries to please her parents.
Each day as I come home from work, Dianna tells me about the successes she has had in school, and I offer her words of praise for the things she has done.
However, one evening when I was thinking of the work that had to be done in the office, I was not attentive to Dianna. When she told me of her excellent grades, I said good and went on to other things. Dianna asked me, “Why do you say ‘Wow’ when David gets good grades, but you only say ‘Good’ to me?” It was a fair question. However, Dianna is a forgiving soul. Now, when she wants me to give heed, she says, “Remember, Dad, ‘Oh, wow!’” That means, “I am going to tell you something important. Pay attention!”
I am reminded of all of this because in the raising of my children I must try to find dramatic ways to tell them what they need to know. How do you tell children to have faith? How do you teach them to have courage? How can you persuade them to be aware of wonder? I tried by describing to Dianna one of my dreams.
On a spring evening with the air warm and moist, I was standing in my backyard with my daughter Dianna and with a very close family friend, Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan. A large man with a deep voice that I had never heard before came into the yard. He seemed friendly but a little nervous. He said to me that he hoped the neighbors in this part of the city were generous with each other, and I responded that it is good always to have good neighbors.
At that point I heard somebody walking down the alley near us who appeared to have a two-way radio, and I asked what it was. The big man told me it was the police; he was standing behind some pine trees that shielded him from a view of the alley, and I wondered how he had seen what was there. Then I heard dogs working in the alley who were apparently under the control of the police, and all of the facts coming together made me know that the big man who had stepped into my yard was being tracked by a police team.
I spoke urgently to my daughter telling her to come, and we hurried toward the house. When we got to the door, the big man was not with us but neither was our good friend. We faced an immediate decision. Should we step inside and lock the door? Should I send my daughter inside and wait for my friend to come? Had she been grabbed by the big man? If she came to the door would she be alone, or would she be a prisoner held hostage? If she were a hostage, would I be able to help, or would I merely make matters worse by getting in the middle?
It is of utmost importance not to abandon a friend. But, it is of equal importance to protect and defend your daughter. I am blind and would need to make these judgments without being able to see what was happening.
At this point I had the satisfaction of waking from my sleep to discover it had all been a dream. Nevertheless, the questions remain. I should help my friends if I can, and I should do this even if it requires sacrifice on my part—perhaps especially when it requires sacrifice on my part. At the same time, I should keep my daughter safe, and I should behave in such a way that I can protect her. When I told Dianna what had happened in my dream, she exclaimed, “Oh, wow!”
When I joined the National Federation of the Blind more than thirty years ago, the man who was then its President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, took a number of risks for me. He spent money to help me get an education, and he insisted that I learn to use my head. Once I wanted to go to a convention of the blind, but I didn’t have the money. Dr. Jernigan asked me how much I needed, and after thinking the matter through, we concluded that I would be able to attend if I received fifteen dollars—fifteen of the dollars that we had in 1969. Dr. Jernigan told me that I could have the money if I would promise in the future that I would find somebody else who needed help and offer the support that I had been given. If I would make that pledge, I would not be required to repay the fifteen dollars.
It seemed to me to be a good arrangement, and I have been making similar deals ever since. Through this system of giving I gain colleagues and friends; I gather about me people who know that generosity is an essential part of living, but it is not only the money that does it. With the money goes a commitment of spirit.
I have found this process of mutual caring and support to lead me in directions I would not have imagined. This is a part of what we are in the National Federation of the Blind. With this spirit we learn about human endeavor that would never have come to our knowledge in any other way. This kind of spirit is for me what Dianna would call “Oh, wow!”
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by Crystal McClain
The world is filled with serious questions relating to blindness. For some of these, we are happy to confirm, we have found very satisfactory answers. Crystal McClain reports the following:
Christmas time at the McClain home in Bellfontaine, Ohio, is filled with happiness and love. Our family decorates, writes wish lists, makes candy and cookies, and, of course, loves to shop.
Letter writing to Santa has been a tradition that all three of our daughters have taken great joy in doing. When Brianne, our eldest daughter, now 17, was small she would dictate her letter for Santa to her father and me. We would listen intently, diligently copying every word for her. Next, we all made a trip to the post office to mail this very important letter addressed to the North Pole. Just to be sure that Santa received the letter in plenty of time, a second copy was delivered to Santa personally at a local mall. As Brianne grew older she began writing her own letters to Santa, but the tradition continued.
In 1990, our twin daughters Madison and Macy were born, three months prematurely; and Santa was the furthest thing from our minds. In spite of their uncertain beginning, Madison and Macy have blossomed into very typical happy eight-year-olds. They each have a distinctive personality and differ in many ways. The most evident difference is Macy’s blindness, which means she reads Braille while Madison reads print.
When Christmas season came last year, and the girls began to write their letters to Santa, there was a serious dilemma in the household. Macy insisted on writing her letter in Braille, which was her method of communication and therefore, not unusual to her. Madison was very concerned that there would be a terrible problem—she was sure Santa could not read Braille! Macy was crushed as Madison continued to insist there was no way Santa would be able to read Macy’s letter.
A very heartbroken Macy came to her father and me for reassurance that Madison was wrong and that Santa did indeed know Braille. We tried our best, but Macy was not convinced that Santa would be able to read her letter, and therefore, Christmas would be a disappointment.
Macy patiently waited for a response from Santa, wondering if Madison was correct and hoping she was wrong. Would Santa really be able to read her letter?
Soon, two letters arrived—one in print and one in Braille! Macy’s face lit up with a huge smile. She was so delighted. Macy read the letter over and over again.
Parts of the letter read:
“Yes, Macy, Santa does know Braille just as he knows print, English, Spanish, Italian, and all other spoken and non-spoken languages.
Written words of all the children around the world are known and answered by Santa.”
Madison had made a mistake, but was happy to learn of it. Shortly after learning of Santa’s ability to read and write Braille, Macy discovered that the Tooth Fairy also knew it as well.
So to the children everywhere remember: Yes, Macy, Santa does know Braille.
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by Jennifer Dunnam
The Climbing National Federation of the Blind operates a number of training centers for blind youth and adults. One of our most effective training techniques is to teach a student to do something he or she believes to be virtually crazy for a blind person even to try. Success at something truly unthinkable causes the student to begin to re-examine all that was previously thought to be impossible.
Jennifer Dunnam is a teacher in one of our centers, and one of the things she teaches is rock climbing. Unthinkable? No, not really. Here is her story:
One of the many joys of being an instructor at BLIND, Inc. (one of the National Federation of the Blind’s training centers) is that the students and staff have the chance to participate in rock climbing several times a year. Not all of us look forward to ascending walls of rock with equal eagerness, but I, for one, am energized every time I do a climb or work with someone else who is climbing. Sometimes I am reminded of my early childhood, when I was willing to try climbing on just about anything taller than I.
My parents did not learn that I was blind until I was seven months old, by which time I knew how to crawl and could pull myself into a standing position. The doctor told my parents that since I was blind, they would need to keep me in a playpen and do everything humanly possible to protect me from harm.
Despite their disappointment upon learning of my blindness, they saw no reason to follow the doctor’s advice since they had so far treated me as they would any other child. I also believe that, by that time, my parents already had a pretty good idea that trying to keep me in a playpen would probably not have accomplished the protection that the kind but misguided doctor had intended.
One of my earliest memories is of climbing a chest of drawers. I am sure I remember hearing the half-open drawers call out to be climbed like a ladder; being a most agreeable child, I obliged—my fingers gripped the top of the upper drawers as my feet stepped on the lower ones.
I almost made it to the top before the chest and all its contents fell on top of me. My fingers still smart whenever I think about it. My pain and humiliation were sufficient to ensure that I did not try climbing on drawers again; my parents could see that I had been well-taught and did not need them to put any additional restrictions on my movement.
During most of my childhood, my family lived in a house located on property owned by the natural gas transmission company that employed my father. My two younger sisters and I had 27 acres of land at our disposal for play—including such useful structures as trees, a pond, an empty house similar to our own, and the compressor station where my father worked. We children were disappointed that we had no stairs inside the house, but we were delighted when we discovered them on the sides of the compressor station.
We (or at least, I) could spend hours just running up and down those metal stairs—a pastime to which my mother never expressed any objection. It seemed very natural to my sisters and me, therefore, to entertain ourselves in a similar manner the day we discovered stairs during a visit to the home of a friend of our parents. My mother did not see the connection at all, but she couldn’t stop us quite in time to prevent my sister Becky from somehow breaking an expensive statue that stood near the stairs.
At a very early age I graduated from stairs to the monkey bars in our backyard. I got to be rather good at climbing on them and was thrilled on my first day of school when I found out there were higher monkey bars on the playground. What a shock I got during that first recess when I tried to join the other kids who were climbing on the bars! As I approached, the children jumped off as fast as they could, screaming, “Don’t touch her! You’ll go blind!” It felt as though the floor had been pulled out from under me. Was it so bad to be blind?
Fortunately, when I went home that evening (and every evening after), I found my world was still normal, my family didn’t think I had suddenly gotten a terrible disease, and, best of all, my sisters were still willing to join me on the monkey bars.
My family did their best to help me keep my expectations of myself high despite the misconceptions of many others around me. That basic support was invaluable to me as I went back to school each day and gradually made friends and acquaintances who, even if they did not always treat me as an equal, were not afraid of me and would share the monkey bars with me.
At home, we had a swing set, which, together with several trees perfect for climbing, consumed much of my free time. My sisters and I, like most kids, were pretty good at thinking up alternative ways to use the swing set—like walking up the slide or standing in the seats of the swings while swinging. The caps had long since fallen off the ends of the crossbar at the top of the swing set, so we liked to climb up the side poles and use the long pipe as a communication device.
Other creatures apparently made use of the open-ended crossbar as well; on at least two occasions, bees came out to express their anger at me for disturbing their home. The bee stings were nothing, however, compared to the time I put my mouth up to the pipe, and a little frog took the opportunity to jump in. All I can say is that a frog—at least in living form—most assuredly does not “taste like chicken.”
When I was about twelve, my sisters and I began incorporating the huge pipes behind the compressor station into our games. They were several feet in diameter, and some of them slanted upward from the ground at angles that were deliciously dangerous if you were trying to walk up them. (Oh, and did I mention that we were expressly forbidden to go near them by my parents?)
For months and months my sisters and I enjoyed the pipes; they could not be seen from the house, so we could play without any annoying interference.
Or so I believed, until the day my father suddenly hauled us all into the living room and yelled for what seemed like hours about how we should never, never play around those pipes. How he could have found out was beyond me, especially since we had not been near the pipes since the week before, when we took all those pictures of each other . . .
Sudden dread shot through me as I racked my brain to recall what we’d done with those newly developed pictures.
It wasn’t long before that question vanished into irrelevance; my dad held up an envelope, from which he removed a series of indisputable photos of his three daughters in various poses on the pipes behind the compressor station. He stopped yelling, and fortunately for us, his amusement at our humiliation tempered his anger somewhat.
As the years went by I became far too cool and mature ever to think about such childish exploits as climbing. Then, when I was fourteen, I joined the National Federation of the Blind—one of the best decisions of my life. I found new friends and learned that I did not have to be alone in dealing with the problems blind people face in our society.
It was with a group of Federation friends that I had my first experience with rock climbing and immediately abandoned my notion that climbing is for kids. Here was something much more real and challenging than monkey bars or natural gas conduits!
Now, as a teacher, I am pleased to have the chance to help students believe in themselves and their abilities as blind people. Rock climbing is one of the ways in which our Center challenges students to go beyond what they believe is possible. I treasure the time spent in such productive fun!
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by Ramona Walhof
Color as it relates to blindness has always seemed to fascinate people. Does color have any meaning for a blind person? How does a blind person learn about color, and how can it be dealt with on a daily basis? Why is it O.K. to wear blue with green now and sometimes even red with pink, when thirty or forty years ago those combinations were strictly prohibited?
These are the questions Ramona Walhof, who is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho, deals with in her story on color. Here is what she has to say:
When I was a child, there were many things to learn. My earliest teachers were my mother and my older brother. My mother intended to teach, but my brother was busy asking questions. Sometimes his questions were boring, but often they were interesting, and I learned as much as he did. I remember a discussion when I was very small, and my brother was asking how brown could contain three colors. I had only a very little bit of vision and largely could not tell colors at all.
I could see contrasts between light and dark if the pieces of color were large enough. Brown looked like black to me. Blue and green were absolutely indistinguishable. Red was sometimes bright enough for me to see. But the business of how there could be three colors in one was beyond me. I realized that it would be easy to repeat the fact whether or not it made sense. This became my practice when people talked about color.
Most people thought color was important. I was expected to be interested in the color of my clothes, the color of the floors and walls in our house, the color of toys, and the color of pictures. Sometimes I could see outlines of pictures even in the catalog, but seldom did I see colors.
I really didn’t understand that I could not tell colors apart because I couldn’t see them. I did understand that I would call negative attention to myself if I didn’t know what color things were. When still very young, I learned that people reacted to color in different ways. People liked red dresses on me, but you couldn’t ever put in a pink hair clip when wearing a red dress. And you couldn’t wear green with blue either.
Navy was dark, and aqua was light, but the different qualities of those colors were harder to understand. I wanted to know why blue could be both light and dark, but yellow and pink largely could not.
Much of the information I learned about color just had to be memorized and used. My mother and my aunts and grandmothers liked flowers, clothes, sewing, and they talked about colored furniture, pillows, craft materials, and more. I found these things interesting, so I had to deal with color, and I wasn’t unhappy about it.
Packages of modeling clay came in four colors, and when they all got mixed together, they looked gray to me. Others could still see the original four colors. Someone explained that the clay never completely mixed together, but little bits of the original four sticks could still be seen. We always had a big ball of clay which we played with on the card table and made everything from house plans to animals to airplanes.
As I grew older and began to make and buy my own clothes, I generally sought advice from my mother about what colors looked right together. While I was away from home at the School for the Blind nine months of each year, my mother was not available. I just remembered which blouses and sweaters went with certain skirts.
There came a day when my mother recommended that I wear a light blue blouse with a dark green skirt. This was a shock, but attitudes were changing. She also recommended that my sister wear a light pink blouse with a dark red skirt. This color business was not so simple.
In high school I learned about color wheels and rainbows and the absence of light versus the reflection of light. This was not nearly as interesting to me as how to match clothes and decorate rooms. Red and pink flowers made a nice bouquet, but you had to be very careful with those colors everywhere else. Mostly, sighted people agreed about this, but they didn’t explain why.
When my daughter was a toddler, one of the things she began to learn was to identify colors. Since I always learned what color her clothes were when we bought them or when she received gifts, it was easy to coach her on the colors of her clothes.
Pictures in books were a different matter. We had to ask for help. This did not bother Laura. She accepted it as a fact of life. And she was very proud when she could tell others the colors of her toys and clothes. We had put up nursery wallpaper in her bedroom, and she could pick out all the different figures and tell us what colors they were.
When my son was a toddler, he was not nearly as anxious to please, and he had no interest in color. He did learn the names of the colors, although not as early as his sister had. He had strong preferences about what clothes he wore. He liked soft and stretchy things. Jeans and corduroy pants were not his choice even after they were well broken in.
He really did not want suggestions about what I thought should be worn together. I learned to check his choices of clothes closely. I knew that if he wore clothes that did not match, people would say that I did not know it.
Chris must have been 3-years-old when he received for Christmas a pair of striped knit pants with a plain colored stiff cotton shirt. Laura received a one-piece pantsuit to match. Chris chose a plaid flannel shirt which he wished to wear with the striped pants. To make matters worse, the pants had an orange stripe, and the shirt had purple stripes in the plaid. It would not do! So I did my motherly duty and told Chris that he could not wear those two garments together.
Not surprisingly, he wanted to know: Why not? “Because they don’t look good together,” I explained. But Chris did not agree. “Well, I like ’em,” he insisted. To this day, Chris seeks advice from his sister and his girlfriend about the best color combinations. It just doesn’t matter as much to him as to many people.
When Chris informed me of his opinion about the purple and orange, I realized that my children had been learning about color in some of the same ways I had done as a child. Although they could see the colors and identify them, they were not born knowing what is considered attractive. They learned that from their culture.
Some blind children have more interest in color than others, just as some sighted children do. They vary in creativity and responsiveness to those around them. Some care more about cars, while others are interested in clothes or flowers.
A child with a little bit of vision may be interested in painting or coloring pictures, while many blind children find the waxy feel of the crayons or the soupy feel of the finger paints more interesting. And some have no interest in either. After an adult loses vision, he or she may retain a lot of interest in color, but some do not.
When I was in high school, I chose to write an essay about a sunrise. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about blindness. I figured people “oohed” and “ahed” about sunsets all the time. As near as I could tell sunrises were just as impressive and received far less press. I sort of liked to face the day before the rest of the world, and I thought you could make a case that sunrises were underrated and underobserved. That is not an original idea, and many others far more gifted than I have made similar observations. Still, when I was a sophomore at the School for the Blind, my essay was considered unusual.
It may have been one of those instances when people overreacted to a blind person who could speak the language. I had no idea I would generate so much response, but now (looking back) it does not surprise me.
The technique I used was simple, and I still use it all the time for all kinds of purposes. I just said what everybody else had been saying all my life. I applied it to a sunrise instead of a sunset. Then I added a dab of how fresh and unsoiled the morning made the beautiful sunrise seem. Well, maybe it was good for a high school sophomore. I no longer have the essay, so I cannot really know.
The National Federation of the Blind has taught me that blind people do not need to apologize for different techniques and different attitudes. We live in the same world as everyone else, and we want to have friends and a satisfying social life. This is normal, but we can worry too much about trying to do as others do.
One friend of mine has no interest in color. His wife arranges his clothing on hangers so that he knows which shirt or jacket should be worn with a certain pair of pants. He just puts them on neatly and never knows or cares what color they are. I would hate not to know what the colors of the clothes I wear are. But his system works for him, and mine works for me. It is O.K.
What I have learned comes in handy. I can talk about color and use it when the occasion makes this desirable. You don’t have to see color to enjoy it, use it, and communicate about it.
When I speak to classes in the public schools, children often ask how I tell colors. I explain that I cannot see colors at all. I learn what color things are by asking others. Then I remember what I am told.
Some children find this answer quite reasonable. Others find it inadequate. This just reiterates what I already know. People’s attitudes about color vary a lot—both those of the blind and those of the sighted.
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by Abraham Nemeth, Ph.D.
Abraham Nemeth is a blind mathematics professor and a long-time leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan. Here he relates a humorous incident which reminds us that ingrained patterns of thought are hard to break—even when they make no sense at all. This is how he tells it
Before coming to Detroit to teach mathematics at the University of Detroit, I lived in New York City well into my young adult years. Since I first lived in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn, and since I had friends in other parts of the city, I soon became familiar with the entire subway system, the bus routes, and the trolley car routes throughout the city.
One day I was on an errand in mid Manhattan. Being familiar with my surroundings, I moved easily from place to place. Two young men with western twangs, who were obviously lost, approached me and asked directions to the Museum of Natural History. From their accents, it was clear that they were tourists. I proceeded to give them very clear and precise directions to the Museum.
When I finished, the two men hesitated for a moment, took one or two steps away from me, and one of them said to the other: “We better ask someone else; that man is blind.” Whereupon I took a step in their direction and, facing them, said: “It is true that I am blind, but I’m not the one who is lost.”
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by Donald C. Capps
Donald Capps is the senior member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, having served in the leadership of the organization for more than four decades. He is also president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. His story provides insight about the life and career of one of our leaders. It also stands as a ringing testimonial to the value of our broad-based program of distributing information about blindness through the mails.
By mailing our Kernel Books, calendars, pencils, pens, greeting cards, and the like, we find the people who need our help. The package of greeting cards Don’s employer received from the National Federation of the Blind in the fifties enriched Don’s own life as well as the lives of countless others Don has in his turn helped. Here is what he has to say:
I grew up in rural northeastern South Carolina on a tobacco farm during the Depression. I was the eleventh of eleven children, and our wonderful Christian mother never passed up an opportunity to tell everyone that I was her baby. She continued to do so even four decades later. My brothers and sisters thought I was spoiled, and perhaps they were right.
I grew up in a large antebellum house which did not have modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity, but it nevertheless had charm. Put together with pegs, this old farm house featured high ceilings and both front and back porches with high back rockers, which we used a great deal during the summer.
Just about every room in the house had a large fireplace. Before the arrival of cold weather, the wood bin would be filled with cut wood from the farm. To this day I can still hear the crackling of the burning wood and remember an aroma different from any other. In the large dining room there was a homemade table, which was always covered by an oil cloth that could be easily cleaned. Long homemade benches flanked both sides of the table. These accommodated my large family.
Unlike today’s hectic pace, with family members eating at different times, we were always together at meal time, which made it special. My mother, who was an excellent cook, always served hot biscuits with each meal, and they always went fast.
My blindness was due to congenital glaucoma. I cannot recall ever having any sight in my left eye, and I had seriously impaired vision in my right eye.
Since my father died when I was six years old, I don’t remember a great deal about him. However, I was extremely fortunate in having a wonderful mother, who wanted me to have the very best in life. Recognizing my limited vision, she took me to an optometrist who fitted me with eyeglasses. In the mid-1930’s, it was not considered cool for a six-year-old to wear eyeglasses.
No sooner had I entered the first grade than I began to be taunted by my classmates. It was necessary for me to sit close to the blackboard, which set me apart from the rest of the kids, so the taunts increased. For four-and-a-half years I continued to struggle in the public school system despite diminishing vision and terrific headaches. This situation forced my mother to remove me from public school in January 1939.
Traveling thirty miles from my country home to Florence, then considered a railroad center, I boarded the train for the South Carolina School for the Blind in Spartanburg, more than 200 miles away. As I boarded the train, my mother and I both cried. At age ten I had never been more than a few miles from my home.
Although I was treated well at the School for the Blind, the adjustment was difficult, and I experienced a lot of homesickness. The school served wholesome food, but it was not much like the home-cooked food I had been accustomed to on the farm. At home we raised most of our own food, so it wasn’t necessary to buy many items from the store.
For example, we did not eat cereal. The school served a lot of cereal. To me the worst of these was All-Bran, which seemed to be the meal planner’s favorite. At times I rebelled, refusing to eat the All-Bran, but I eventually had to give in since I was not permitted to leave the table until my bowl was empty. I must confess that, since leaving the school more than fifty years ago, I’ve eaten very little cereal and no All-Bran at all.
During the five-and-a-half years I attended the School for the Blind, I profited immensely from the education, learning all of the basics including English, algebra, Latin, history, and a little music.
Unquestionably, however, in later life I would come to understand that the Braille instruction I received was particularly important. In the 1940’s blind students had no option but to learn Braille, even though in my case it was necessary to blindfold me to be sure that I used my fingers rather than my limited vision.
During my sophomore year I told my classmates and others that I was not coming back the next year but would enter public school in my hometown of Mullins for my junior and senior years. No one believed me. During the five-and-a-half years I attended the School for the Blind, I was always made to feel that with my bit of sight I was superior to those who were totally blind. Undoubtedly this false notion affected my thinking and decision to leave the school for my final two years of high school.
Because of the excellent training and education I had received at the School for the Blind, I did well during my junior and senior years at Mullins High School, graduating in the top ten percent of the class. I was able to take fewer courses because I had already had many of them at the School for the Blind.
Meanwhile, my older brothers had left the farm for greener pastures, making it necessary for my mother to give up farming and move to the town of Mullins. This occurred in 1940 when I was twelve years of age.
I soon learned that just three houses up the street from my new home lived a beautiful, ten-year-old, blond-haired girl, who would eventually become my wife. Her name was Betty Rogers, and we got along fine. She would even let me ride her bicycle since I never owned one of my own.
In those days homes were not air conditioned. However, just about every home had a front porch and a swing for summer enjoyment. The house in which Betty lived was no different. That particular swing stands out in my mind. When I was fourteen-and-a-half and Betty was twelve, we were swinging together one summer evening, and I managed to steal a kiss.
Was it puppy love?—I think not. Six years later Betty would become my beautiful eighteen-year-old bride. On June 25, 1999, we celebrated our golden wedding anniversary with our two adult children, Craig and Beth, and three grandchildren.
In 1947 I was fortunate enough to acquire a junior claim examiner trainee position with Colonial Life and Accident Insurance Company. From the beginning it was difficult for me to read the material that came across my desk.
With my sight gradually but steadily diminishing, it soon became necessary for me to use the strongest magnification device available in those days to read claim forms, hospital records, death certificates, and other items including papers connected with an occasional lawsuit.
In early 1953 my ophthalmologist and I concurred that the time had come when I could no longer see well enough, even with magnification, to do the necessary reading for my job. I returned to the office and went straight to the rest room, where I wept.
Unfortunately, in 1953 I did not have knowledge of or the support of the National Federation of the Blind and its wholesome philosophy concerning the respectability of blindness and the capability of blind people. My only course of action seemed to be to go to the president and co-founder of the company, who had hired me, to explain that I could no longer read, and therefore, I was submitting my resignation.
I was fortunate in having a boss who had observed my work for a half dozen years and believed in my overall ability. He quickly responded, “Donald, I have known for some time that you would not be able to read much longer. I want you to know that we’re not paying you just to read. We are paying you for what you have learned during the past six years, including your ability to interpret policies, evaluate claims, dictate letters, and supervise others.
“We have invested six years in your training, and we do not want to lose the benefit of your knowledge and expertise. We’ll get you a reader, and you will continue to have a full-time secretary. I see no reason why your blindness should in any way affect your continuing to do the things for which you have been trained.”
In 1953 there was no Americans with Disabilities Act, but my boss was ahead of the times. Furthermore, my boss’s attitude was far superior to any provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As a result of his understanding and faith in me, for more than thirty years I successfully functioned as a blind person in claims administration, enjoying a thirty-eight-year career and rising to middle management.
I joined a local organization of the blind in August of 1953, but it was another year before I heard about the National Federation of the Blind. That year my employer received a box of greeting cards and some literature in the mail from the NFB. I was immediately asked about this organization and given the information to review.
I agreed with every word in the literature and suggested to my employer that he would do well to contribute to the NFB. Additionally, I promptly wrote to NFB headquarters and requested more information.
I attended my first National Convention in July 1956, in San Francisco. There I met two giants in the National Federation of the Blind. They were Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the distinguished founder of the NFB, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who would serve the NFB as President from 1968, the year of Dr. tenBroek’s death, until 1986 and as President Emeritus until his death in 1998. Dr. Jernigan had a profound impact on my life and served as my mentor from the earliest days of our friendship.
The sound philosophy and policies of the National Federation of the Blind have improved the quality of my life. From the beginning I gave my best efforts to my employer, attending to my assigned responsibilities and then some.
However, the wholesome philosophy of the NFB taught me to compete successfully with my sighted co-workers for recognition, promotions, and salary increases.
The Capps’ home and family life were typical of those of any family of four during those years. Our two children recognized that I went to work each day and was a normal dad despite blindness.
In fact my blindness was never an issue with them. Beth, about five at the time, was playing with a neighborhood friend one day who remarked, “Beth, your dad is blind.”
Beth responded matter-of-factly, “Yes, and he’s smart too.”
Like other blind persons I’ve had a variety of experiences, some of which were humorous and others not so pleasant. Some years ago, in a small town about fifty miles south of Columbia, where I now live, an old train depot was converted into a seafood restaurant. It rapidly gained a reputation from Columbia to Charleston as the best seafood restaurant in the state.
During our first visit the restaurant cashier observed my white cane and realized that I was blind. She also recognized that we were from out of town. Upon learning that we were from Columbia, she commended Betty for being nice enough to drive me there. During our next several visits the cashier thanked Betty each time for being so nice to me.
Finally, one Saturday afternoon, when my favorite college football team had lost badly, and I was therefore not in a good frame of mind, we decided to visit this seafood restaurant. As though she were programmed, the cashier once again thanked Betty for driving me down.
At this point I lost my cool. I had had enough; I firmly told the cashier that I agreed with her that it was nice of my wife to drive me down from Columbia, but it was also nice of me to go to work everyday and make the payments on the car. From that day on the cashier never thanked Betty again.
While the cashier had meant well, it was clear that it had never crossed her mind that blind people could work, maintain a home, raise a family, or meet normal obligations. What I have learned through my years in the National Federation of the Blind enables me to deal courteously but firmly with this subtle form of discrimination.
The National Federation of the Blind has also taught me to accept other responsibilities within both my church and my community. My fellow Rotarians elected me President of the club in 1974. Other than relying upon a Braille agenda and a Braille watch, I presided in the same way as any other Rotary president.
Always active in the church, I have served a number of terms on the Board of Deacons and as Chairman of the important Personnel Committee.
What is the value of greeting cards? The National Federation of the Blind greeting cards certainly changed my life for the better. They brought me a message of hope, and indirectly they taught me to love my fellow blind. Thus it is impossible for me to place a true value on the National Federation of the Blind greeting cards received by my employer some forty-five years ago.
The National Federation of the Blind way of life not only has greatly enriched my life but has enabled me to work harmoniously with thousands of blind Americans to improve their lives. For this wonderful opportunity I am deeply grateful.
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As readers of previous Kernel Books know Bruce Gardner spent a good bit of time as a boy trying to convince himself and others that he was not really blind. He did so because he did not believe that it was respectable to be blind.
In this current story he reminds himself that although success can be measured by many outward signs, for it to be real there must be inner peace. Here is what he has to say:
What is success and how is it measured? Is one a success by being a senior attorney with a major corporation, president of his home owners’ association, precinct committeeman for his local political party, High Priest and member of the High Council at his church, and scout troop official?
Should one be considered successful if he lives in a nearly five-thousand-square-foot house on a gentleman’s farm with a citrus orchard, pasture, and barn with horses, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, and other farm animals?
Or is success being happily married to a wonderful wife and having six bright, healthy, well-mannered, and well-adjusted children (three of whom are now teenagers)?
Perhaps. But it is hard to feel successful unless one is at peace with one’s self. As one who grew up blind in a predominantly sighted society it was not easy to imagine being successful or easy to find that peace. The blind are generally regarded as incapable of doing much of anything.
I certainly grew up with all the same negative misconceptions about blindness, never mind the fact that I was blind. It was not until I found the National Federation of the Blind that I was able to begin making significant strides on the road to success.
I remember several years ago when I was the scouting coordinator between our church and the Boy Scouts of America. We had a youth swimming party for all of the youth at our church including the scouts. All of the kids were having fun ganging up on their leaders and throwing them in the pool. The teen-age girls were ganging up on their women advisors, and the boys were ganging up on the men. All except for me.
As scouting coordinator I had been with the twelve- and thirteen-year-old scouts at most of their weekly activities and on a number of outings and hikes, and was a full participant in all the physical activities and roughhousing, yet no one grabbed me and tried to throw me in the water.
I began feeling very left out so I left the pool area and decided to get some watermelon. Because we were running low on sliced melon I decided to cut some more. A good friend of mine walked up and would not let me cut the watermelon. He said, “Here, let me do that.”
I said, “That’s okay. I’ll do it; I slice watermelon all the time.”
But he insisted, saying, “No, I’d better cut the watermelon. That knife is sharp.” With that, he took the knife from my hand.
I was already feeling very conspicuous because I was the only youth leader there who had not been physically gang tackled and thrown into the pool. When my good friend refused to let me slice more watermelon, that was all I could take, so I left the party.
I was so angry and hurt that I could not think straight. When I finally cooled off a few days later, I was disappointed that I had allowed myself to be affected that way.
The next day I sent my friend a letter and tried to explain why his attitude about my cutting the watermelon had bothered me so much. My friend called to apologize and say that he was genuinely touched and impressed by my letter.
By then I had cooled off a little, and I apologized for allowing myself to get upset. After all, I had spent years selling myself short and assuming I could not do many things. Why should I expect my friend to act any differently?
I have tried to learn from these experiences and not allow others’ attitudes and actions to affect my attitude. In small ways I think I am progressing on the road to success. For example, my law office is on the 18th floor of a 20-story building in downtown Phoenix. A few weeks ago as I stepped into the elevator along with an acquaintance from the building, he commented that the light was out in the elevator. When the doors closed it was pitch dark inside.
The other man in the elevator then said, “Now we’re equal.” I considered saying that there were a number of things besides the ability to see that would have to be considered before that judgment could be made. But I didn’t. I just politely laughed and said, “Right.” It would have done no good to get upset or offended.
One does not have to be an attorney, president of an organization, or live in a big house in order to be successful. But regardless of how one measures success, one can hardly truly feel successful if little things in life get him angry.
I am grateful to the National Federation of the Blind for giving me the confidence to know that I can be a successful, productive member of society, and I am particularly grateful for the realization that in order truly to progress on the road to success, I must also be at peace with myself and the world and not let negative misconceptions about blindness affect me in my own heart.
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by Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. Her stories have appeared frequently in the pages of our Kernel Books. She recognizes that sighted people don’t always understand the techniques that a blind person is using to accomplish a given task and that, consequently, they often worry needlessly about the blind person’s safety. In Fighting Every Step of the Way Barbara addresses just such a situation. Here is what she has to say:
One of the constant challenges I face as a blind person has to do with steps. If you don’t happen to know a competent blind person, you probably assume that I mean it is hard or potentially dangerous for me to use stairs, but that isn’t it at all.
I happen to use a long white cane to travel, but even if I used a dog or human guide, stair steps in themselves wouldn’t be my problem. It’s the reaction of sighted people when they see me approach steps that causes the trouble.
Whether I’m striding along on my own or walking with my hand on a friend or family member’s arm so we can comfortably walk side-by-side, my cane is always out in front of me, sweeping my path and giving me advanced warning of curbs, stairs, or even rough places in the sidewalk.
A guide-dog user knows that, when the dog stops, he or she had better extend a foot to investigate why. Usually the stop is caused by a step up or down. Once warned, the blind person can deal with the step and give the dog the command, “Forward.”
When a blind person depends on a human guide, he or she walks a step behind the guide and firmly holds the guide’s arm just above the elbow. In this way the guiding arm communicates all body movement in time for the blind person to follow safely.
Of course a fall on steps can happen to anyone, but the people who are in significant danger of being hurt are those who are losing their sight but have not yet admitted the problem. They try to make their vision do what it no longer can, so they flirt with a fall rather than learn to use a cane safely.
But we who depend upon white canes used properly or good vision (our own or someone else’s) have no reason to fear steps even though we occasionally stumble or even fall when we are not paying attention.
I have been climbing stairs, ladders, and trees for as long as I can remember. In fact, one of my earliest memories goes back to the house my family lived in when I was two. The part of the story I actually remember is wandering around the yard and coming upon two parallel posts with cross pieces going up as high as I could reach. The second rung was chest high, and by holding on to it, I could step up onto the bottom one. I had a bit of vision at the time, and I think I knew that my father was standing at the top of this interesting contraption. I started climbing up to visit him. I remember the heady delight of gradually rising above the ground, the bushes, and even the first-floor windows.
My father’s feet were heaving into view before he realized that I had joined him on his ladder. I now know that he was painting the house, and I was effectively blocking his descent down the ladder to a point where he could grab me.
He could think of nothing to do but call my mother, who was pregnant at the time with my brother. She did not dare climb up to get me. So, with their hearts in their mouths (as they have assured me through the years), they talked me back down the ladder to what they considered safety.
Disgust and disappointment were my emotions at the time. Had I but known it, that was the beginning of a conspiracy to keep me firmly on solid ground. The conspiracy continues to this day and extends, no doubt, to all blind people.
Even as a child who couldn’t see well and didn’t use a cane, I knew that, as long as I knew where the steps were, they would be no problem. Jungle gyms, hay lofts, bunk beds: all these were great places to play because I knew where to put my feet.
After all, blindness has nothing to do with being able to move efficiently or safely—it is a sensory disability, not a mobility problem.
The days when I sought out staircases to climb are now long past. I have made my way to the top of the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Given the chance to repeat any of these expeditions, I am not at all sure I would do so, but I’m also not certain that I would not. I still absolutely prefer to find the fire stairs and climb a dozen flights rather than wait in a crowded lobby for fifteen or twenty minutes to wedge myself into a packed elevator.
My husband and I own a home built in 1890 as an off-campus dormitory. Counting the basement and attic, it has four floors, three indoor staircases, and one fire escape. Until we converted the upstairs sun porch into a laundry room, I lugged the dirty clothes for a family of five from the upstairs bathroom to the basement to wash and dragged the dry ones back upstairs to fold and distribute.
During the early years I usually made these trips with a toddler on one hip because the house was so large that she was afraid to be left alone when I went to the basement. I mention all this because, when I became a member of the National Federation of the Blind, it came as an unpleasant surprise to learn that blind people have actually been required to fight legal battles for the right to climb stairs.
Today there are laws that protect our rights to jobs and housing to some degree. But twenty-five years ago blind teachers were denied jobs because the school buildings in question had stairs. Blind people were refused apartments because there were no units on the first floor. And blind college students and campus visitors were confined to ground-level accommodation on some campuses because administrators thought they would not be safe on the stairs.
None of these outrages happened to me personally, but I have met people to whom they did. As soon as my attention was drawn to the problem, I began remembering and noticing the odd things that happened to me when steps or ladders were nearby.
I have written about my days as a Girl Scout when I was forced to sleep on the bottom bunk at camp. In part it was adult fear that I would fall off the top bunk and hurt myself, but I now think that another concern was the ladder at the end of the bunk.
At the time I pointed out in vain that everyone slept with their eyes closed and that I was no more likely than the other campers to fall out of bed or get hurt if I did. Then I climbed the ladder to the top bunk to demonstrate the ease with which I could get up there. Nothing doing. The Girl Scout leader had promised my mother that I would be safe, and she was taking no chances.
Today it doesn’t matter whether I am alone or with my husband; people assume that I cannot manage steps or an escalator. If I inquire directions to the stairs, I must firmly insist on using the steps, or I will be directed or led to the elevator, however remote or antiquated it is.
If there is no elevator, I have to wade through earnest apologies for its absence. Plenty of people need elevators, and they should certainly be available for those who cannot negotiate the stairs. But when a person asks about stairs, that should be a pretty good indication that he or she can climb them and perhaps even prefers them to elevators.
Escalators create a different but related fear for many sighted people. I think most people begin with the assumption that the blind traveler is not aware that an escalator is nearby. Usually the motor is loud enough to indicate where the set of escalators is located. Certainly the metal plate at the top and bottom of the escalator makes a characteristic sound when tapped with a cane tip, and the ridges under foot also clearly indicate one’s position.
People seem to fear that I will go sailing away in the wrong direction or that I will try to step onto the top of an up escalator. It may be that some blind people can always identify the openings of all escalators. But in a noisy area or with particularly quiet equipment, I cannot always tell whether I am approaching the up or down escalator.
I determine where I am by stepping close to one side of the opening and reaching forward with my cane to determine which way the steps are moving. More accurately I should say that I do this whenever other people let me get close enough to the opening before grabbing me and screaming, “There’s an escalator in front of you! The elevator is this way.”
I smile and try to remember that these helpful people don’t know what I do and that they are only trying to help. But someday I am going to manage to decide which escalator is which without frightening the bystanders. In the meantime I will continue to take to the stairs whenever it suits me.
When you see a blind person confidently strolling along in the direction of a flight of stairs, try not to worry. It isn’t necessary to count the steps in a staircase and give the information to an approaching blind person. I can truthfully say that I do not know for certain the number of steps in a single staircase of my acquaintance. My feet know, and they stop climbing or descending at the right time. But I do not count, and I do not pay any attention to numbers flung at me by well-meaning sighted people. The tip of my cane tells me when the steps or escalator is about to end, and it’s a far more accurate way of determining the bottom or the top.
If you feel constrained to provide some piece of information, mention which way the steps are going. If a blind person is not being as attentive as necessary, he or she may hear the word “steps” and assume that they are going the opposite way. One can trip over the bottom riser while trying to step down, but trying to step up at the top of a flight of stairs can result in a nasty fall.
But mostly blind people who are out and about are quite used to taking care of themselves. People with orthopedic problems are the ones interested in ramps and elevators. Blind people will ask for information or assistance if we need it. But many times we would just like to climb the steps in peace.
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by Barbara Walker
Barbara Walker is a long-time leader in the National Federation of the Blind. She lives in Nebraska and is active in the United Methodist Church. Some might regard Barbara as the shy and retiring type. But those who know her best have learned that with measured response and quiet dignity she teaches her friends and neighbors that it is respectable to be blind. Here is what she has to say:
Last fall, at one of the Unit meetings of United Methodist Women in my church, Circle III, which I chair, was scheduled to serve. This job generally involves planning the menu, providing table decorations, serving buffet·style, and cleaning up.
The night of the meeting, other duties prevented me from all but clean·up. When I went to the kitchen and asked what needed to be done, I was told that everything was covered and almost finished.
No sooner had that exchange happened than Janelle, coordinator of our serving team, came in, asking if she could help dry the dishes that were piling up. The same woman who had told me there was nothing to do said, “Sure. We’ll get out of here quicker now.”
As a blind person, I have grown accustomed to being overlooked for jobs people don’t think I can do. How I respond to it depends. In this instance, I continued to engage in the discussion which had been taking place during the whole time, neither doing nor saying anything about the interaction about the dishes. But I felt set aside. I think the word for that these days is marginalized.
Knowing we would be serving again just before Easter, I vowed to find a way to participate. As it turned out, an opportunity was presented to me.
During planning, Janelle asked if I would help her make nut cups. Ordinarily, thinking of myself as inept at crafts, I would have refused such an offer. But, in the spirit of my vow, feeling surprised and pleased, I agreed to do it.
We used plastic eggs, cardboard disks made of manila folders, and little downy chicks from a craft shop. The two halves of the eggs were connected by a thin strip of plastic. Since we wanted to use the halves separately, those needed to be cut. We glued a disk on the end of each egg half so it would stand and mounted the chick on the rim at the point where the strip had been severed.
My job was not—as I had skeptically thought it might, in her mind, be—to sit and give moral support while she did all the work. She had made a real offer with genuine expectations. I cut the eggs apart and pressed the disks in place until the glue held.
The night of the meeting, as women were gathering, I was filling nut cups with fake grass, jellybeans, and malted robin eggs. I enjoyed the chance to serve.
During the meeting, when different participants in the program were being recognized, Janelle said she and I had made the nut cups. The woman sitting next to me took my hand, saying, “These are so cute. Have you seen them?” I said only, “Yes. I helped make and fill them.”
Hurt and anger started to surface, but it was different from the time last fall. This time, I had really done something and knew there were other women there who knew I had.
I didn’t have the nerve, as I hoped I would but suspected I wouldn’t, to go into the kitchen afterward and insist on helping with clean·up. But I had participated fully in making the table decorations and, one disbelieving or inattentive woman’s perception notwithstanding, it felt good.
I feel encouraged to continue to nurture the seeds planted during these events. Janelle, the one who gave me the opportunity with the nut cups, has the gifts of assertiveness and acceptance.
When I thanked her for approaching me as one with ability and potential, she said it hadn’t occurred to her to do otherwise. Knowing that, I may, next time we’re scheduled to serve, delegate to her, as part of her duty as serving team coordinator, placing me in one of the jobs no one has yet allowed me to do.
After all, both delegating and serving are responsibilities I accepted as chairperson of Circle III, and I intend to do them.
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