Future Reflections       Convention Issue 2014      PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES

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My Rookie Year
The 2014 NFB National Convention

by Jamie Allison

Jamie AllisonFrom the Editor: Jamie Allison serves as president of the Cherokee Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. Her reflections on her first NFB convention may inspire anyone who contemplates attending a convention for the first time.

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since late childhood, but my involvement has ebbed and flowed over the years. I live in a rural county, and our NFB chapter has ebbed and flowed as well. Reading the Braille Monitor and Future Reflections helped me stay connected with the organization. My favorite issues were always the ones published just before and after the annual national convention. I loved to read about all the convention happenings, about the host city and the things to do there, about the individuals and families who attended and what they learned. I dreamed of attending convention myself some day.

This year everything fell into place. Early in the spring, I was discussing the convention with a friend whose family planned to attend for the first time. Without hesitation, my friend offered me a ride to and from Orlando with her family. I made up my mind that this was going to be my year. I started to put my extra money into a convention fund. I also spoke to my state president, with whom I have interacted many times since I became president of my local chapter. He quickly agreed to write a letter on my behalf for a Kenneth Jernigan Convention Scholarship. The Jernigan Scholarships are awarded through the national office of the NFB to help first-time convention attendees cover their expenses. I compiled and submitted the necessary information as promptly as possible, knowing that many people apply for Jernigan Scholarships every year. I was pleasantly surprised and greatly honored when my request was granted.

It took a while for me to absorb the thought that I was actually going to go to convention. However, as the time drew closer, my anticipation mounted. When the agenda was posted, I assimilated as much of the material as I could and drew up an individualized itinerary for myself. I also sought out the mentorship of several people who had previously attended national conventions. They offered me key points of advice. By the time we arrived in Orlando, very late on Monday, June 30th, I was as ready as I could be for such a life-changing event.

Many of my favorite convention moments happened during the NOPBC conference. This may seem a bit surprising, since I am not a parent. However, I worked in the field of blindness education for fifteen years. Although I am no longer teaching, I still want to be a positive influence for blind children and their families. I want to promote Braille literacy, autonomous travel with the long white cane, and the use of the other tools and skills that have allowed me to meet with success. I have found that there are plenty of opportunities for all of this in the NOPBC.

At convention I finally met many families with whom I had been in contact through Facebook and other social media. Throughout convention week a steady stream of people introduced themselves to me; upon hearing their names, I placed them instantly. In my whole life, I have never felt so comfortable with people I had not met before. Convention is just like one big, happy family!

Magic was in the air from the very beginning. I positioned myself near the front of the room when Dr. Maurer sat on the floor to talk with the children, who came forward with white canes in hand to encircle him eagerly. A quiet energy was present in the room. I could tell that the children were listening intently, hanging on Dr. Maurer's every word--and for that matter so was I. I knew that this would be Dr. Maurer's last national convention as NFB president. There was often a bittersweet feeling in the room, a reverent honor for all that has been accomplished and an energetic anticipation of what will be achieved in the future.

Another highlight for me was the Cane Walk, sponsored by the NOPBC. I had spent time under sleepshades in preparation for our state's first NFB BELL program, and I was excited by the opportunity to work on some travel skills in this way during convention. I donned my shades just prior to leaving my room to go to the Cane Walk session. I spent over two hours traveling under the shades that day. With the guidance of my instructor, I even overcame a deeply rooted fear of escalators. I took the escalators many, many times afterward, and though I could have used the exercise from the stairs, my legs were thankful. Now when I come to an escalator, I'm not panicky, and I don't have to expend precious time and energy trying to find an elevator. I close my eyes and just do it ... and it's fun!

As the week progressed, I felt a deep debt of gratitude for having been chosen as a Jernigan Scholarship recipient. I wanted to find an opportunity to give back at least a small portion of the encouragement I had received through that blessing. One of the most awesome events I had read about was the Braille Book Fair. As soon as my attendance at convention was confirmed, I knew I wanted to attend and assist with this event. I had read about how it had grown over the years, and I imagined that putting on the event must be a labor-intensive process. I was delighted to discover how well it all came together. From the minute I stepped into the room, it was apparent that this was a team effort. Kids on the floor eagerly sorted through piles of books taller than they were, reading titles and matching volumes. Adults shuttled armloads of books from table to table, moved furniture, and stacked empty boxes against the wall.

At times the preparation was organized chaos, yet a few minutes before the doors opened, everything was in order. There was a palpable sense of anticipation, even for the grownups. I have never been in a room with so many Braille books in my life! It was exhilarating! I don't know how many times I've gone to a chain bookstore and found myself wishing there could be something like that for Braille readers. The Braille Book Fair is the closest thing there is! It was thrilling to witness the excitement of the children as they found books to be enjoyed, as well as the quieter, yet cheerful and grateful response of adults who had just found a cherished old favorite.

The exhibit hall was also a favorite attraction. It was wonderful to get my hands on so many tools for the blind all in one place. For anyone who wants to do some comparison shopping before purchasing a piece of access technology, this is definitely a prime opportunity. The device that excited me most was a bluetooth refreshable Braille display with a note-taking feature built in. I plan to purchase one as soon as I can.

I found myself attending meetings of many groups and divisions, and in some cases I became an official member. I am now a proud member of the Writers' Division and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB). A bright spot was being recognized publicly for my winning entry in the Writers' Division contest.

Of course, the general sessions were very informative, with thought-provoking topics and engaging presenters. It was quite a scene when Dan Parker drove his dragster motorcycle onto the convention floor! I also enjoyed presentations by Ray Kurzweil and many others. The presentations made in Dr. Maurer's honor were moving and memorable.

I would like to offer one bit of advice to rookie attendees. Be sure you schedule some time for a quick diversion. Our party felt that the sessions were vitally important, and we chose not to do anything that would take us away from convention for an entire day. But by the Saturday evening before the banquet, we felt as though our brains just might explode if we tried to put in any more information. We opted for an evening outing to Downtown Disney. This was the highlight of the trip for me outside of the convention. The fresh, albeit humid, Florida air and the change of scenery were good for all of us. We filed back in on Sunday morning refreshed and ready for the final day's events. We also found that the pool area was an inviting place during several evenings. I enjoyed making new friends from all over the country while taking a refreshing swim or lounging by the hot tubs.

Banquet night was very special. The meal was delicious, of course. Dr. Maurer's final speech left an indelible impression. A major highlight for me was realizing that I was sitting right next to Mark Riccobono's mom! I was one of the first Federationists to congratulate her on her son's election as president. I admit that I brushed back a tear or two when President Maurer and President Elect Riccobono brought down the closing gavel together.

I couldn't have asked for a better first convention! Now I am preparing to attend the seventy-fifth annual national convention in 2015. I know that it may not be realistic for me to go every year, but I want to attend as many conventions as I can. If you have ever considered going to convention, I encourage you to do so. You will not be disappointed!

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