by Marja Byers
As executive director of Blindskills, I can assure you that we are still here and, in many ways, we’re growing. That’s not to say that we have not had growing pains along the way! Blindskills was founded in 1982 by Carol McCarl, who was working as an itinerant teacher at the Oregon School for the Blind. When she realized that these students had no other peers that were blind and had no adult role models, she started Blindskills as a place to get information and resources as well as starting “Footprints,” a magazine for blind/visually impaired students and their families.
In 1990 Carol took on publishing DIALOGUE Magazine from Don Nold in Illinois and continued publishing both magazines for four years before she merged the two. All the while she continued to work as a TVI! As Blindskills continued as primarily a publishing non-profit, Carol was very fortunate to convince B.T. Kimbrough to take over as director and editor in 2008. I didn’t become legally blind (again) until March of 2010 and eventually started attending the “Shared Visions” monthly support group in 2012 after learning about it from my Commission for the Blind counselor. I quickly became a regular and B.T. several times told me, “You are such a wonderful ambassador for the blind!” I eventually asked him why he would say that, and he answered, “Because you have energy and enthusiasm that just fills this whole room!”
Long story short, I started as a volunteer doing research and helping with office work, which very quickly turned into a paid work trial through the Commission. I like talking with people and love to share information, which suited B.T. as he is an introvert. It quickly became clear that community outreach was (and still is) a passion for me. One quiet January morning early in 2014 B.T. told me of his intention to retire at the end of the year and he wanted me to take the director position. I was stunned. My personal email address is peon4ever, I was never supposed to be a director of anything! I was nothing that B.T Kimbrough and Carol McCarl were, I’m not totally blind, I don’t read braille, I’m not an editor/publisher/writer and I don’t have a master’s degree. Mr. Kimbrough lingered another year to help me see and understand that I am capable and even after his move home to Kentucky he continued to edit DIALOGUE and provide moral support to me.
Then came 2019. It was by far the most tumultuous year in Blindskills history. In February B.T. called me to let me know that he planned on retiring at the end of June, but I wasn’t to talk about it until he got some other things in place. I did speak to Phyllis Schmidt, our invaluable office assistant, about it the next week, and she informed me that she too intended to retire at the end of June, which would leave just Carol, who was retired, and I as staff. B.T. worked with Carol to try to find a replacement editor. She hadn’t really thought about it as Don Nold had done. At this point our bank account was getting very low. Instead of grant-seeking the spring before, I was recovering from a bad fall and a mild traumatic brain injury. As I was leaving the office one day in early May, I received a text message from Carol’s primary caregiver that Carol had just passed away from heart failure. My reaction was, “I broke her heart and I killed her!” Things were clear to me in May: our founder is gone, our editor and office assistant are leaving, we don’t have grant money... Tough decisions had to be made. At the June board meeting, the board of directors voted to suspend publication of DIALOGUE until funds and a suitable editor could be found. I told them that in order to stay in operation, I would have to close the office and work from my home. I spent July and August in the monumental task of closing our publishing office. I was so grateful to Kim Charlson and Perkins Library for taking the archives of both “Lifeprints” and “DIALOGUE” magazines. We closed our office doors on August 18, 2019.
Now what? Blindskills had already been working with a Salem, Ore. senior center, Center 50+, after they reached out to us on how to make the center more blind-friendly. We now offer three monthly support groups there with the recent addition of our Saturday Low Vision Life Skills group, as Salem’s transit system was able to start Saturday bus service again. We offer two monthly tech classes focusing on smartphones and tablets, which is being taught by two of our board members. We have a certified O&M instructor on our board who is currently working with five area seniors who don’t get much from state services. We want these folks to be able to safely stay engaged with our community, and O&M is crucial!
Up until this week we have a weekly casual coffee get-together, which often leads to lunch for some of us and sometimes shopping. This puts white canes and guide dogs in groups in the downtown area, making it clear that blind people are very much part of this community. And I’m seeing more white canes than ever before! Our coffee group decided on a conference call so we can continue to meet by phone on Wednesdays, but later in the afternoon so we have a better chance of getting through with so many folks teleconferencing. We still have our website, Blindskills.org; we have the same office number, (503) 581-4224 (but no longer have our 800 number), and our mailing address is the same, PO Box 5181, Salem, OR 97304 (in case anyone would like to send us a donation!). I continue to provide one-on-one support as needed, and as everyone isolates it has increased my phone support time. Blindskills still gets calls from around the U.S. and Canada from people looking for information and resources for themselves or family members. “Where can I order this? Can you get me the number for....? Where did I get that big wall calendar from?” I love that Blindskills has given me the opportunity to make friends from around the country who continue to call and check in with me.
As the representative of Blindskills I have developed some good community partnerships with our transit district, Salem Police Department, county and city works departments, Oregon Department of Transportation, Center 50+, Casey Eye Institute Macular Degeneration Program, Hull Park for the Blind in Sandy, Ore., and the Oregon Commission for the Blind. I am very proud of the work we are doing. We have a growing blind community that often assures me that I’ve made a huge change in their lives and given them something they didn’t know how much they really needed.
Have a question? Give me a call, I’m available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time.