by Kim Charlson
I am often asked by people who are both sighted and blind, "Who were your role models in life?" I think we all have had role models, whether we realized it at the time or not. Many people acknowledge their parents, and that is absolutely an invaluable relationship that truly defines a person's outcome in life. However, there are often others who contribute in so many ways that we should acknowledge and recognize.
There were two women who served as my role models — one was blind and one was not. I think this variable of someone with vision and someone who was blind was also critical in my growth and development as a person, as a woman, as an advocate, and as a leader in the blindness movement.
My first mentor is my mother, Frances Young. As early as I can remember, she always had me do the same things I would have done had I not lost my vision when I was eight years old, from complications of glaucoma. She was once criticized by her older sister for having me take my turn washing the family's dinner dishes. My well-meaning aunt said, "Why are you making her do that, she's blind?" My mother responded, "I won't always be around to do things for her, so she needs to learn how to do as many things as I can teach her now." This caused a family rift for several years, until my aunt realized the wisdom behind my mother's philosophy.
Throughout my childhood, my mother was always ready to take on anyone she needed to in order to get me what I needed for my education. Once, she went to the Board of Education in Oregon after she discovered that there was no bus service to transport me to and from school. She testified before the board and they found funding to provide day students at the Oregon School for the Blind with transportation every day.
I learned my advocacy skills from my mother as she wrote letters on issues. She always said that if there is a problem, then write a letter identifying the problem and asking for an official to correct the situation. Give suggestions, don't just complain. Those words always stayed with me as I grew to begin advocating for myself and then for other people who are blind through ACB.
My second mentor was a professional woman who is blind. Carol McCarl, my teacher in sixth grade at the Oregon School for the Blind, had a major impact on me as I grew up. She was incredibly independent, traveled everywhere she needed to go, raised two children, started a non-profit organization to publish two magazines, Lifeprints, which merged into Dialogue, available today from Blindskills; and she advocated for people who were blind in Oregon. She made me work, and whenever I tried to take shortcuts and less than accurate paths on assignments, she would insist that I redo it correctly. I learned that I needed to do my best and work hard. She taught me that I would need to have a resume that showed activity, volunteer work, and solid grades. My success in future employment would depend on having skills that an employer would find useful.
I often ponder where I would have been in my life without such strong and dynamic women as mentors. As I travel around this country, I have opportunities to talk with people who have not had mentors; and they have struggled on a path of independence and success. I have also had the opportunity to speak with people who are mentors to others who are blind in their communities. Mentoring isn't always between a child and a grown-up; it is more common between adults. We have many examples of mentors in the workplace, with someone taking a newer employee under their wing, or recognizing the possibility of someone and investing time and energy to help them reach their full potential.
I have had the opportunity to be a registered mentor in CareerConnect, a program of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), www.careerconnect.org. CareerConnect is an employment information resource developed by AFB for job seekers who are blind or visually impaired. It presents employment information, career exploration tools, and extensive job-seeking guidance for students and adults with vision loss and professionals working with them. It matches potential mentors with job seekers in a similar field to provide guidance.
Several of the staff who work at the Perkins Library, where I am the director, came to me via CareerConnect. Whenever I can, I work to mentor people with vision loss. Presently, there are 10 employees who are legally blind working at the Perkins Library out of a total staff of 26.
Mentoring doesn't always mean that I don't say things that are sometimes difficult for someone to hear, but reality is part of what I can provide with my experiences. I believe in people having dreams and goals in their lives to accomplish, but I also believe that reality has to factor into the equation.
As we start 2014, I would like to challenge you to mentor someone. Whether you are a career mentor, or a personal mentor, everyone can help someone else who is blind or visually impaired. Whether you make sure that a new member in your community has a personal invite from you to the next chapter meeting, or that you take a newly blind person in your area under your wing to introduce them to people and to services that can help them adjust to vision loss, there are many ways you can mentor and help someone who needs support. Take the time in your day to mentor someone else who is blind. A personal invitation and support goes far in building that relationship and growing a mentoring role for you with others. Share what you know, or what you have learned through life experience, with others in your sphere of influence.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor probably said it best. "When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become — whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm — her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, 'Yes, someone like me can do this.'"
Make 2014 the year when you become a mentor and make a real difference in someone else's life!