By Jennifer Dunnam
Happy New Year to all. As I put the final touches on this article, winter is well and truly upon us — temperatures in the Twin Cities are at 22º below zero (not to mention the wind chill of minus 45), and it's much colder in the Twin Ports area. Yes, we Minnesotans are hardy souls to get through winters such as these. Our hardiness comes into play right now for other reasons, too. There is much transition underway in our community and field, from which we will learn and grow stronger.
In early October, Shawn Mayo, who served as the executive director of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) for ten years, announced that she would be leaving at the end of the year. Under Shawn's leadership, BLIND, Inc. grew and thrived, continuing to be recognized throughout our nation and beyond. Shawn worked very hard to help individuals gain skills and think through their approach to blindness so that they can live their lives as others do and give back to their communities. She has been a strong proponent of mentorship, and her efforts to raise the bar have improved the landscape and the lives of people in significant ways.
In December, we held a party to celebrate Shawn's work and wish her well in her new life in Iowa. A crowd of Federationists, many of them alumni of BLIND, Inc., as well as leaders and counselors at State Services for the Blind and others, came from throughout the state to share memories and good wishes. The presidents of the NFB of Minnesota and of the board of BLIND Inc. presented Shawn with a beautiful plaque in both print and braille. She also received a freedom bell like the one presented to students when they graduate from the training center. Refreshments were plentiful, and the event was a fitting way to honor the great person and the important work that she has done. We know she will stay in touch with us in Minnesota as she continues to participate actively in the NFB.
Dan Wenzel will become the new executive director of BLIND, Inc. Dan is a long-time Federationist who served for several years as the state president in Wisconsin and as a member of our NFB national board. He believes deeply in the work of the Federation and in our training centers as an expression of the Federation. In addition to a strong background in Federation philosophy and action, he brings a great deal of leadership experience to the position. He is currently working as manager of youth services at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. Prior to that, he directed the Wisconsin Center for the Blind, served as an assistant director at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and held various other leadership positions in his employment and in the communities in which he lived. He also worked for several years as a cane travel instructor. Dan will bring great enthusiasm and commitment to this work, and, of course, I know we will all stand ready to provide help and support.
By the time you read this, he will be here, and his wife and three sons will move here in March. Fortunately, Dan will have the opportunity to get up to speed and training before jumping right into things. Dick Davis, who has been assistant director for employment for many years, will serve as the interim director while Dan completes training.
Another leadership change occurred in December with the retirement of Richard Strong, who worked in various capacities at State Services for the Blind for more than 30 years, most recently as its director. Presentations he gave at our conventions have appeared in these pages, so Bulletin readers are familiar with his approach. There is still plenty of work to do to get things to where they should be at our rehabilitation agency here in Minnesota, but because of Dick's strong belief in the capability of blind people, his deep knowledge of rehabilitation for the blind, and his valuing of the importance of consumer input, significant improvements were made during his tenure as director. His retirement celebration was also well attended and a testament to his long and dedicated work. He will be missed. At this writing, the search for a new SSB director is in process, and as is customary when leadership is being sought for programs working with blind people, the NFB is providing input.
The changes, of course, do not slow us down but inspire us to redouble our efforts at our usual important work on legislation, advocacy, public education, teaching each other, and all of the other activities that make us who we are. Fourteen Minnesotans will attend the Washington seminar to win the support of our Congressional delegation for fair wages, for access to educational materials, and for equality in the use of airlines. No doubt many more Federationists from throughout the state will be part of our day at the Capitol to work on legislation here in Minnesota. Our semiannual convention will take place on Saturday May 18 in Minneapolis, and it is never too early to start obtaining contributions for our Walk for Opportunity held in September in Rochester.
Also in September will be a major celebration of the 100 years since the completion of the building of what is today our headquarters, the Charles S. Pillsbury mansion.
As we start up a new year full of opportunities, I urge each of us to stay informed — read The Braille Monitor and this Minnesota Bulletin; attend chapter meetings; follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds; watch our members’ listserv; and keep aware of what is going on in our local communities that could affect blind people in particular. We need the perspectives, ideas, and help of all our members to get our work done. No doubt 2014 will be an exciting year of strengthening and growth.