A Special Thanks to My Heroes
By Emily Zitek
Many Federationists around the country categorize their lives as having two parts: one that existed before the NFB and the other that still exists after NFB changed their lives. Many of us remember that first person who changed our lives, the one who seemed so confident and positive and had the ambition and drive and enthusiasm we wanted so much but didn't think was possible because we didn't have the skills and confidence to believe it. Many of us are involved or even very successful in work, the Federation, or our interests. Most of the time, we tell people that if it weren't for a certain person or group of people, we wouldn't have gotten to the successful place we are in now. Because of my pride and satisfaction over how far I've come, I have to say that I owe two very special people much thanks and gratitude for the way my life has turned out: Joanne Wilson and Joyce Scanlan. Sometimes when we're caught up in the power of an organization or get so busy in our jobs, we tend to forget about those people who had mentored us when we were no more than a beginning student, being under sleepshades for the first time, not certain if we would make it another day of training. Somewhere along the line, we tend to dismiss those people who were there for us when we were first hired at a job and were feeling so overwhelmed by something as simple as answering a call on the telephone switchboard. Well, I'm here to say that I'll never forget Joanne and Joyce, who should never be taken for granted. In their own way, both of them have set the example that I still follow today.
My life, like many others, had that "before" and "after" the NFB phase. The life I had led before my first summer at the Louisiana Center for the Blind was bleak. I used a white cane, only because my mother and stepfather told me I had to. I didn't see the value, since I thought it was much easier memorizing familiar territory and using sighted guide to get around in new environments. Most of the time I pitied myself for being blind; in fact, one afternoon shortly before I had my first NFB summer camp experience, I remember talking to the family dog, telling it how terrible my life was as a blind person. I hated being different from everyone else my age. I had turned fourteen that summer, and many of my friends were in the planning stages of taking Driver's Ed. I never thought I would be cooking that summer, or walking to the store by myself, and even the thought of living alone one day was just another terrible obstacle awaiting me in this dark tunnel I called life.
I finally began to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel my first night at a five-week-long summer camp for blind children, the Buddy Program. That's when I met Joanne Wilson. She was my first mentor and role model, the person I strived to be like one day. She was a totally blind mother of five children, director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, president of the NFB of Louisiana, and worker in the Buddy Program that summer. I couldn't imagine having so many responsibilities as a regular adult, let alone one who couldn't see. When I met Joanne, I knew she would teach me how to be independent.
Shortly after I arrived there, she handed me a white cane and sleepshades. I knew beforehand that the cane and shades were requirements while going through training that summer. Instead of simply telling me that I had to use the cane and wear sleepshades, Joanne took the time to explain their importance. This made me want to start learning things the way a totally blind person did, in order to become like Joanne. I no longer looked at the cane and shades as dreaded aspects of the training that I absolutely had to use.
We grilled hot dogs that first night, and with Joanne's demonstration and assistance, I overcame one of the things I had always feared until then: cooking over an open fire. The next morning when I told Joanne I wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast, I thought she would simply go in the kitchen and make it for me. But instead, she said, "Okay, Emily, let's make breakfast together.” When laundry needed to be done, she didn't tell us to go and do laundry or assign someone else to help all the time. Most of the time, when her schedule allowed it, she made the time to come down to the laundry room and show us how to use the washing machine and the dryer, and she even taught us to fold clothes and socks.
I believe Joanne was a perfect example of a great leader. Sometimes we get busy in our line of work. I'm an employer myself, so I understand this all too well. But I never ask people who work with me to do anything I'm not willing to do myself. No matter how tired or busy Joanne was that summer, she had an undying love for the Buddies and the Federation. She got out there on her hands and knees, rolled up her sleeves, and worked right along with the rest of us. That made me stop feeling sorry for myself and believe that I could have the confidence and independence that made Joanne shine. I had no more excuses for myself.
I moved to Minnesota in 1996 and joined the NFB of Minnesota. A couple years later, Joyce Scanlan hired me at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. It had been a hard two years since moving to Minnesota, and I needed to find a job where I could grow and learn new things. I began my employment by working the phone switchboard and watching the front door. Over the next few years, Joyce gradually increased my job duties, which became more challenging as old staff left and new ones were hired. Through my first few years, Joyce was my mentor. She believed in my abilities in the beginning and gave me the chance to grow from being just the receptionist into someone wearing many hats.
By the time Joyce retired from being the director of BLIND, Inc., I had learned to do the class scheduling and take over the transcription of documents into Braille, and then I was the life-skills instructor and office manager, all at the same time. Joyce treated me as a part of her team, from day one.
There was a time when Joyce had difficulty finding a suitable secretary who would work well with her. As office manager, I had to help train several people before we found a secretary who would work well. When something wasn't working out with one of those potential hires, Joyce would pull me into her office and explain the reasons why that person wasn't working out. She communicated with her staff during difficult times so none of us was ever in the dark about things. She proudly recognized and praised us when we accomplished something or were doing an exceptional job. There were unfortunate times when issues arose, and she was straight to the point with her students and staff.
What meant the most to me was that despite her very busy schedule of being president of the NFB of Minnesota and directing BLIND, Inc., she made sure to ask, on a regular basis, how I was doing, if I had questions about a new job duty, or concerns about a certain issue. She took extra time out of her day to make sure I was holding out. She provided guidance and a friendly ear when my grandmother died of lung cancer. She recognized my good performance and told me that she believed in me when I was afraid of teaching my first life-skills class shortly before she retired.
After working at BLIND, Inc. for ten years, I decided to make a change in my career, and now I'm a self-employed blind vendor. Since I have one convenience store to run, in addition to almost 40 vending machines around St. Paul that need servicing several times a week, I have to hire employees. I have followed Joyce's example and still call on her for advice when dealing with hiring new people and breaking through the difficulties current employees might be experiencing.
Even though she has retired from being the director of BLIND, Inc. and is no longer the NFBM president, I believe that her wisdom is still important and that we shouldn't dismiss her because her era of power is over. In fact, I believe none of us should ignore or turn down her wisdom and knowledge, especially those of us who Joyce has taught. We always need new people, but I don't believe we could be successful without learning from our predecessors.
I have to remember that if it hadn't been for Joyce and her willingness to give me a chance to prove myself, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. I will pass on the things she taught me in order to teach others. Like Joanne, Joyce didn't just tell me to go and do something without explaining why. She made me believe that I could do it. She led by example, which was proof enough to help me believe in myself. I follow Joanne's example, just by educating the public and teaching students pursuing vending as a potential career that blindness isn't going to get in the way of being successful.
In the town where I grew up, it has always been hard for anyone to find employment. Unfortunately, the people I grew up with weren't very educated about the true meaning of blindness, so had I chosen to continue leading the life before I met the NFB, I would probably still be living at home with my parents, being driven and led around from place to place, and may not have a very bright future. So I want to give a special thanks to my heroes, Joanne Wilson and Joyce Scanlan. They have been longtime leaders in the Federation who have changed the lives of many and we should not forget them.