Community Matters

By Sue Lichtenfels, PCB President

In this season of giving, I dedicate my last President’s article to all those who gave me the gift of support, both through their work and their friendship over the last four years. Our organization is beyond fortunate to have all the gifts that our peer volunteers share on our teams, in our chapters, and on our board. While I will not attempt to name everyone who has played an important role during my presidency, I do want to publicly thank two incredible men. I am especially grateful to Michael Zaken who was willing to take on responsibilities much more than Treasurer. I am also especially thankful to Tony Swartz, for his on-going guidance, his expressions of confidence in my abilities, and his acceptance of any project I asked him to undertake. Thank you to all who share their presence and presents with PCB throughout the year.

You know, the proverbial “they” always say it’s better to give than receive. But what if I could offer you the best gift idea ever because both the giver and the receiver would benefit from the gift? Well, the gift is the PCB peer network. If we, the peers of PCB would openly give the PCB peer network to the ever-growing community of individuals with vision loss, in turn, the community would provide many rewards for PCB.

If you read my previous article, you will recognize this as a follow-up to my statements that PCB needs to shift its focus from that of a membership-centric organization to a community-focused one. I quoted from the purpose statement in the PCB Bylaws and provided evidence of the drastic difference between the number of people our membership represents versus the total number of people who experience vision loss in Pennsylvania. I promised to follow up with some ideas for how a community-focused PCB might serve the community of people with vision loss as our organization’s bylaws and mission statement declare.

The continued planning for and hiring of a full-time staff person to specifically focus on developing community relationships is a definite move in the right direction. It will be vital to keep this person outward facing and not allow this person to be pulled into pre-existing PCB projects that are membership-focused. This person needs to be regularly attending statewide disability-related meetings to make sure the community of people with blindness or vision loss has a voice in the conversations and a hand in the decision-making. He or she needs to be looking to other disabled and non-disabled stakeholder groups to broker partnerships that will support and bolster our advocacy work. The new hire should be making personal connections with the front-line staff at blind associations, BBVS offices, low vision clinics, etc. to educate them about the PCB peer network and establish mutually beneficial relationships. He or she should always be looking for and facilitating opportunities for our peers to be of service to the community as vision loss mentors, peer advocates, resource providers, public educators and the like in furtherance of our mission. Whenever possible, the new person should be directly promoting, or facilitating the promotion of, all PCB’s offerings to reach those who are new to vision loss and to recruit peer volunteers to get involved. If we provide our new hire with equal parts guidance and freedom, the impact on our community and our organization could be amazing.

A lot of the heavy mental lifting to accomplish the refocusing of PCB will need to be done at the team level. It will require honest review and major retooling of project goals. Rather than starting the year making plans to recycle what we do every year; I encourage every team to hit the “restore to factory defaults” button and select a new operating system. Let’s install “community” software to guide all we do: community fundraising, community conference program and planning, community peer engagement, community communications, community advocacy, community vision loss resources, etc. We should always be asking; how can we make the best use of our resources to benefit as many individuals in the vision loss community that we can? In practical terms, what might some of that refocusing look like?

When it comes to the work of our Vision Loss Resource Team, I always envisioned it would do more outreach to provide education, awareness, and yes, resources to people losing vision, their loved ones, and the agency and healthcare professionals who serve them. Once edited and published, “Now what? Assisting Your Loved One through Vision Loss” will be an invaluable community education tool. But what if we partnered that booklet with major promotion of our toll-free number as a warm line for resources and peer support when any Pennsylvanian is diagnosed with vision loss. Could we develop a peer training to staff such a line? The team might also consider the following ideas: give underwriting and organizing support to chapters to hold vision loss expos around the state; offer vision loss webinars for family and friends; develop training for peers to become vision loss mentors or support group leaders in their communities; or develop/conduct vision loss awareness presentations for those working with seniors.

With regards to an annual conference, what if we looked at the entire event as a community conference, not just a PCB conference? Consider how more efficiently we would be using our resources and impacting our mission if we led the collaboration of a cross-organizational conference aimed at supporting the entire community of people with vision loss, not just our membership. If we had coordination buy-in from the PAB’s, BBVS, the NLS libraries, AER, etc. we could utilize their knowledge and outreach resources to put together a content-rich conference that attracted peers of varying ages, interests, and visual experiences. And we could leverage their support to promote the conference to each of their client bases.

Right now our fundraising activities primarily rely on our small membership to do the buying, selling, or donating, with very modest return. When we change the focus to fundraising from the community, not only do we have a larger base of potential supporters, but we also can raise awareness of our mission. Community fundraising endeavors might include soliciting donations through “Day of Giving” campaigns, organizing a community-wide special event, marketing a social entrepreneurial venture such as AccessiDocs, and using online opportunities such as auctions, ads and affiliations.

With these three teams, I’ve offered you a glimpse of what widening our focus to the community-wide perspective might mean. These are just ideas though. For these or other ideas to have maximum effect, each of us will have to stretch beyond the invisible, yet very real wall that we have erected around our organization. By continuing to collect dues, we confuse ourselves about who is meant to benefit from the mission, and we inherently send the message out to others that our events and offerings are member-exclusive. I’ve spent the entirety of my presidency trying to persuade each of you how important knocking down that wall is to the future of this organization.

I understand that removing the placebo commitment of dues is scary to long-time peers who fear the NFB infiltration of our organization. While anyone from the community of peers who are blind or visually impaired might have a vote in a community-focused PCB, those who would be eligible to run for leadership positions could be held to certain standards to insure their commitment to PCB. These might include: a mandatory length of involvement in PCB activities, a required number of volunteer hours contributed to the work of PCB, and a history of membership in ACB. Hopefully this would allay the concerns.

As I wrap up this year, I will happily pass the PCB presidential baton to Christine Hunsinger. Chris is an excellent advocate and is extremely resourceful. While Chris is cleaning up whatever mess I left her, I’ll be relaxing on a beach in Hawaii for three months. A girl can dream, right? Seriously though, I’ll be around to provide whatever support Chris requests of me.

Peers, I hope that I’ve done you proud as your President for the last four years. It’s been a pleasure being of service to you and with you. Cheers to the PCB peer network in the New Year! May we finally break out of our membership cocoon and fly into the community.

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