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Diving into Leadership

By Alicia Richards

Editor's Introduction: It is natural for everyone, blind or sighted, to harbor a fear of one thing or another. In this article Alicia relays an exciting account of how she overcame uncertainty and joined with a group of adventurous students to break down one more stereotype. Here is Alicia's story.

The date was Sunday, September 9, 2001. At the time I was a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), and I was closer than I'd ever gotten to the experience of flying. I was among a group of approximately 12 fellow students who were taking part in sky diving over Longmont, Colorado. Fortunately, I was in the first group of divers and had plenty of time to stand on the ground and watch my fellow students, staff, and friends come screaming from the skies. Adrenaline rushed through my veins, but I also experienced a sense of pride. This was because, at that moment, I was realizing a dream, not only for myself, but for everyone who was a part of our group.

Shortly after arriving at CCB, I was asked to serve as student coordinator for this activity, and at that moment, standing on the ground with my heart pounding, I allowed myself to think over what I had learned through the experience. My involvement in dreaming, planning, organizing, and finally seeing the event carried through taught me much about leadership, and I still use that knowledge today. It guides and encourages me, and so I would like to share with you some of the principles I learned that day.

1. It Starts with a Dream

In this case, the dream began in the apartment of Buna Dahal, who was a wonderful friend and mentor to me during my time at CCB. I had long dreamed of experiencing sky diving for myself, but Buna and my friend David made it clear that they believed I was the best one to help coordinate the effort--which included, among other things, getting both people in and outside the CCB interested and involved. At first I was incredulous. It was not, as many assumed, the idea that blind people could actually sky dive that had me so staggered. In fact, that was the one notion I never struggled. It was the thought that we could plan, fund-raise, and generally organize this event in less than three months, and that I was being told I was the best person to lead the charge. Buna and David's faith in me meant more than I can express, and something which I thought could only be a dream began to take shape as a possible reality in my mind. Even so, I was very hesitant, and I made sure I had multiple promises of help before I agreed to anything.

2. Unfulfilled Promises

I had heard the saying that when it comes to planning an event, if ten promise to help, only two or three ultimately do the work. I had certainly experienced this when it came to school group projects, but I assumed this would be different. I was incorrect. Many who had initially committed to help soon backed out of the plan, or told me they could no longer contribute any time or effort to fund-raising and organizing because of busy schedules. My support network of fellow students and staff, which appeared solid in the beginning, turned seemingly nonexistent, and I felt I was standing completely on my own in the middle of nowhere. Within several weeks, my fiery enthusiasm for our project had turned into a desire to give up on the dream altogether. Fortunately, (though I did not view it as fortune for a few weeks), there were several problems with the idea of scrapping the plan. Chief among them were that we had already begun receiving donations from various state and local affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind, as well as personal donations to individual divers. What would I tell these contributors if suddenly our plan fell through? I could not bear the idea of giving up on something I had wanted for so long. Perhaps it would have been easy to have simply found my own $180.00 and dived at a different time, but that was not the way I had planned it. Although I did not have a problem with being blind and sky diving, I quickly learned that others did, many believing we could not do it solely because of our lack of vision. The desire to prove the naysayers wrong was exceedingly strong.

3. Teamwork is essential.

I have to admit that the loss of support was partially my own fault. My biggest mistake was to dismiss those who did not plan to actually jump with us the final day. It soon became clear that there were many staff, students and friends who in no way planned to dive, but were nonetheless excited about it, and ready to do anything they could to assist with it. There were countless meetings and discussions to find methods of fund raising. There were times I think we would have liked to exchange harsh words of frustration with one another! However, we kept our common goal in mind, and thus managed to work together toward it.

4. Find a guide/mentor who will make you think.

Though Buna and David were the inspiration behind the plan, the woman who mentored me through it all was Jennifer Stevens, another CCB staff member, and the staff coordinator for our event. I realized just how lax I had been when Jennifer called me into her office only two weeks before the scheduled dive, and asked me where we were on plans. I thought we were doing well, until she fired a string of questions at me regarding the minute details, such as transportation to and from Mile-Hi Skydiving Center, a final list of divers, and many more. All I could do was stare at her in silence, my mouth open, trying to form words that would not come. I expected a reprimand from Jennifer for my untidiness, but she simply sat me down, and made me think things through calmly. Even in this, she kept to the "structured discovery," learning method adopted in CCB's classes. She did not give me the answers, but rather the tools to come up with them. The details that I could not take care of because they involved finances on CCB's part, she took over, but the rest she left to me. It was then that I learned the difference between my own hesitation, and the need to ask for help when things seriously got out of control.

5. The joy of the dream coming true.

This brings me full circle to where I began this article. My happiness on the big day came not only from my own new experience, but also from watching the others who joined us, some believing they could not have done it, some like myself, who believed but simply never had the chance until that day. Though it was not a required Center activity, there was no way it would have happened if not for the CCB and the fact that we are a part of the National Federation of the Blind.

Ever since that day in 2001, I have carried with me not only the thrill of the sky dive itself, but also the important tools I have described. I have explained them in the context of one event, but have transferred them to other Federation events I have been part of, college projects, and life in general. I am glad I have my friends and mentors in the Federation from whom I can continue to learn, and I look forward to much more growth in years to come!


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