By Jacqueline Wissinger, PCB Secretary
If you were unable to attend the PCB Conference and Convention this year, or if you didn’t get to listen to it as it was streamed on ACB Radio, you missed a weekend packed with information, inspiration and, of course, lots of fun and laughter. It is not easy to pack 4 days into a single report, but I will do my best to give you a taste and to possibly whet your appetite so that those of you who did not attend will want to do so next year.
Our conference was held this year at the Crowne Plaza in Harrisburg. The proceedings began on Thursday evening with the Pledge of Allegiance and an invocation led by our Chaplin, Jackie Wissinger. This year’s conference theme was “Peers Challenging Beliefs” and was masterfully addressed by our president, Sue Lichtenfels in her opening remarks. She listed several ways in which we challenge the beliefs of the sighted world every day, such as, when we take our new baby home from the hospital, walk to the corner grocery store, hold the door for someone else or lead the choir in song, and more. There are also intentional ways in which we challenge beliefs, such as when we are involved in outreach public awareness demonstrations, write advocacy letters or share on Facebook. She pointed out that TheReImage, our special website project is where we can share our life experiences and use them as a means of challenging beliefs. Peers challenge the beliefs of those who are adjusting to vision loss and who think their life has to be less without sight. She informed us that beginning in the next year, we will be providing a monthly virtual support call to be led by Dr. Andre Watson in order to strengthen and support those who are adjusting to vision loss. She added that peers challenge their own beliefs when they take on leadership roles in PCB and accomplish the tasks they set out to do. She informed us of the survey which was conducted by PCB in order to determine the quality of service received by clients of BBVS and said that the results of that survey would be given to Shannon Austin, the Director of OVR, that very night. The findings of this survey will also be available to all peers in their preferred formats upon request. She continued with this statement: “Peers challenge the beliefs and practices of their organization when they believe it’s the right thing to do for the good of the mission.” She pointed out to us that our current membership model, especially a paid membership, is not working. She asked us to consider how much better off blind kids are today than when we were growing up, due to a great extent to our great advocacy work. She stated, “We need to find fresh impactful ways to engage them because clearly the antiquated membership model hasn’t been attracting new younger people for more than a decade. What a tragedy it would be if an organization that has succeeded by challenging, challenging, challenging failed to challenge its own beliefs at such a critical time in its existence. We know that we need to engage people where they are, and that’s not in here. It’s out there.” She informed us that we will be bringing on a fulltime staff person to engage the community, carry our message to other forums, develop organizational partnerships and seek opportunities to further our mission. This new position is slated to begin in April. Sue informed us that as a result of this change, the position of Director of Community Affairs, which is currently held by John Horst, is being eliminated. She further stated, “As you know, John has and will continue to be an essential advocate for PCB.” She expressed our appreciation to John for all that he has done for our organization. John expressed his appreciation for having had the privilege of working with everyone over these many years. We certainly appreciate his leadership and his caring and concern for all of those he has served.
Sue closed by relating the analogy of the butterfly. For years blind people have lived in a cocoon of inaccessibility, of unacceptance, of misperception. But now, because of peer advocacy we have created butterflies. She said, “Maybe they can’t fly as far or as fast as the other butterflies and maybe they still get entangled in the net of others’ misperceptions, but the bottom line is they are flying! They will never be tethered to our organization as it is. As butterflies, they are cross pollinators. So we can count on them to bring something to the organization but also to carry something away, our message. If the butterfly effect is true, and the flight of 1 butterfly can have a major effect on the world, imagine what a network of butterflies could accomplish. Let’s start tilling that organizational ground today and begin creating our butterfly garden.”
Next up was a presentation on endowments and estates by Mike Zaken and Tom Burgunder, who are members of the Finance Team. PCB has established an endowment fund for long term use for the benefit of the organization. Greg Knight, our investment counselor was present in the audience and answered some questions about the fund. Tom’s presentation was divided into 2 areas, a strategy for accumulating assets and a strategy for distributing them. He quoted the following saying: “It isn’t so much how much you earn that determines how much you have, but rather how much you save determines how much you have in the end.” He advised us that if we consistently have more at the end of each month than we spend, then our long-term financial survival will be intact. Another strategy for saving money is to ask an employer to deposit an amount of our wages that can be spared into a savings account. He also advised us to pay off our credit card statements at the end of each month in order to avoid finance charges. Other methods of saving money are 401K’s, which are often matched by employers, and IRA’s. He also discussed health savings accounts, into which money can be deposited tax-free and taken out tax-free and can be used to pay qualified health expenses. He said that diversification of assets is best as we acquire them. He also discussed the importance of making a will. If a person dies intestate, (without a will), the courts will determine the dispensation of assets and will appoint a guardian for any minor children. He encouraged us to meet frequently with our financial or legal advisors to make any necessary changes, as the circumstances of our lives change. He discussed Social Security and how our benefits can vary according to when we retire. “It’s a gamble,” he said. “Do I wait and get more, or do I start collecting sooner and get less?” He explained how money could be removed from various retirement accounts and donated to an organization such as PCB and could be used as a tax deduction.
Our next speaker was Shannon Austin, Director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. She formerly served as the District Administrator of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, Pittsburgh District Office. She informed us OVR “is still open for business” and is serving about 46,000 people. She added that as of the first of July, approximately 2,400 people have found employment through OVR. OVR is continuing to move forward trying to close out current cases in order to be able to work with others who are on the waiting list. They are striving to ensure that means are available to pay for any current employment plan. She next discussed Act 36, which was signed into law in June of 2018 to ensure that our state is an Employment First state. This ensures that individuals with disabilities are given the opportunity to achieve economic independence and jobs that pay competitive wages and competitive integrated settings. Recommendations were made about making websites accessible to those who were applying for jobs and for tracking those who were applying for jobs. Chris presented Shannon with the final report of the survey, which was conducted by PCB concerning clients of BBVS, expressing the hope that it would be used as a road map for future communications between PCB, OVR, BBVS and all of those involved in Labor and Industry. Shannon informed us that OVR and BBVS are not merging and that the search is on for a director of BBVS.
Our session concluded with the first reading of the proposed bylaw amendment read by John Luttenberger of the Parliamentary Team regarding the number of delegate votes at the convention. It was proposed that beyond the customary two delegate votes each chapter gets automatically, one additional vote be earned for every twenty members past the base of twenty members.
The evening ended with Believe or Bust, a trivia game. It was fun, and we all learned facts that we never knew before.
Friday morning was filled with activities, beginning with the first-timers’ breakfast which provided an opportunity for the newest conference attendees, the members of the Peer Engagement Team and the Board to meet and become better acquainted. Other activities included the opening of the exhibit hall, an audio darts tournament and an audio described movie. The Crowne Plaza Hotel was a busy and fun place to be.
The afternoon general session began with a presentation by members of the Technology Access Team, Michael Zaken, Jule Ann Lieberman and Lisa Salinger. Lisa began by demonstrating 2 grocery delivery services, Insta Cart and Shipt. The idea was not to give us a “guided tour” but to take us through the process so that we would know what is out there and would be able to try for ourselves and find what works best for us. Jule Ann next discussed her shopping experiences with Aira. Aira also provided services free of charge for conference attendees. Michael discussed his experiences with Amazon and Alexa. The team has put together a list of shopping services which can be sent to PCB members.
Our next speakers were Becky Davidson and Kathy Rooney from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, who discussed changes that are affecting the ability of blind/visually impaired people to travel safely. Kathy talked about roundabouts and floating bus-stops and how unsafe they are for pedestrian travelers whether blind or sighted. She suggested that guide dog handlers use harness lights in order to make them more visible to motorists and to increase the safety factor. Becky added that the lights really do make a difference. She told us that the Environmental Access Committee of ACB is working on getting some funding to produce a YouTube video to increase public awareness of these situations. One of the issues is that pedestrian safety laws are dealt with locally, and it was suggested that groups come together to try to affect the needed changes. Becky suggested that we look at the Pedestrian Safety Handbook which is available on the ACB website which contains various articles concerning this matter. We were urged very strongly to fight the fight in order to affect the needed changes for safety in travel.
Next on the agenda was the presentation of a charter to our newest affiliate, PA Guide Dog Users and Supporters, (PAGDUS). Rose Martin, the president of the affiliate accepted the charter.
The first-timers were next presented and introduced to us by Mary Ann Grignon, who is the leader of the Peer Engagement Team. We had several first-timers at our conference this year and hope that they will come back and join us next year and in the years to come.
Our Friday afternoon events continued with 3 concurrent breakout sessions, which were led by some of our peers who have some expertise in these areas. Rose Martin, who is our Social Media Coordinator, offered a presentation on Social Media Basics. An intro to AccessiDocs was conducted by Tony Swartz, our Accessidocs Project Coordinator. Lastly, the Vision Loss Resource Team conducted an open discussion for “Real Life Peers Challenging Beliefs.” With such interesting and informative topics, how unfortunate it was that we were only able to choose one.
As is the custom, our PCB Live Auction was held on Friday evening. The bidding was lively both by our phone participants and by those in the audience. We had 3 teams of auctioneers this year, and I had the pleasure of being a part of one of those teams. I was a little nervous, but I made it. I hope I get to do it again next year. They say practice makes perfect, and I need more practice. It was fun.
The following morning found us ready to begin our General Session combined with our SPARK Saturday. Sue welcomed peers and guests with these words, “PCB is a peer network of Individuals who are living, and yes thriving, regardless of vision loss or blindness.” She continued by saying that all the presenters for this event are challenging beliefs who also have found the spark of inner vision that has lighted a new world of opportunities for them.
Our first presenter was Thomas Reid, who is the host and producer of the podcast “Reid My Mind Radio.” His presentation was witty and informative. He shared with us some of his journey toward adjusting to blindness. He said, “So it’s all about this idea of taking something that you’re passionate about and combining it with something that you really enjoy doing.” He discussed 3 things that he wanted us to take away from his remarks: first, that we would think about how to incorporate our natural interests into other parts of our lives; second, that we would discover the steps to creating our own passion project; and third, that we would have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves through these interests. He tied all these things together with personal anecdotes from his life which led to the creation of the “Reid My Mind Radio” podcast. He gave us the steps to creating a passion project. I only have so much space for this report, but I would encourage you all to listen to the archives. In my opinion the most important step in creating a passion project was to have fun, which happily, seems to be a part of everything that Thomas Reid is involved in.
Our next speaker was Kristin Smedley, the author of Thriving Blind, a book which recounts her experiences as the mother of 2 blind sons. Although she was devastated by this totally unexpected turn of events in her life, she was determined to do her best to ensure that her sons had every opportunity to grow up independent, self- confident, and to thrive. She shared the experience which became the pivotal point of her life. While attending a conference with her infant son for parents and their blind children, she witnessed 2 families, each with a teenaged child. The first parents were exhausted, trying to please a petulant child. In contrast, the second scene was that of a mother arguing with her son about the appropriateness of skateboarding in the hall of the hotel. She said: “I had no idea how to raise a blind kid to not just survive but to thrive, but I knew at that moment I did not want an argument over whether I served my child the right snack. I wanted the argument about whether skateboarding was appropriate in a hotel or not.” She related some insight she received from another mother who attended that conference. She said, “There’s gonna be a day when you don’t see the blindness in your child. You just see your child.” She came to realize that blindness was not a problem for her son but that it was for her. She shared something that she wanted all parents to hear; “blindness bothered me because the dreams I had for him required vision”. The biggest blessing she and her children received from the blindness was, she said, “I took my dreams off of them, had to get them what they need, and I swear to you, I just followed their lead.” I thoroughly enjoyed Kristin’s presentation. I was inspired by her warmth, her humor and her wisdom.
Our last presenter of the morning was Stephanae McCoy, founder of Bold Blind Beauty & CAPTIVATING! Magazine. She shared with us that despite the many obstacles she faced in her life, there were 2 things that kept her going, her drive and her intense belief that anything is possible. She said that as a blind woman of color and over 50, social justice has always been important to her. She shared with us that her approach to social entrepreneurship is simple, identify something that needs to be done and then do it. She explained that the development of the three P’s: Pause, Pace, and Partnership, helped her along in this process. She created the blog Bold Blind Beauty to empower blind and visually impaired women. She created this name in order to challenge the idea of blindness being negative. She continued, “My belief is beauty resides on the inside, and this is why I created Bold Blind Beauty. Her tag line is, Real Beauty Transcends Barriers, and her mission statement is, improving humanity by changing the way we perceive one another. She said that we should respect the titles that people use to refer to their visual impairment. She is not afraid to refer to herself as blind. She stated, “If I can’t accept that word, if I’m afraid of it, then how can I ever get anyone else to believe that there is beauty within blindness?” She gave us some advice in creating our own path, “be yourself, be authentic, use your voice, know your why.” She pointed out that although it is important to be independent, we are all connected and can help each other along the way. Again, I encourage you to listen to the conference archives. I can only touch a few of the high points of these very inspiring messages.
Dr. Andre Watson, who was to have been our 4th presenter, was unable to attend the morning seminar because of a death in his family. In his absence, Jule Ann Lieberman, leader of the Vision Loss Resource Team, announced the support group which PCB is sponsoring which is slated to begin in January 2020. These phone discussions are being held for those who are having difficulty in adjusting to vision loss. The goal is to provide a confidential setting for support led by a trained professional who also lives with vision loss.
Mary Ann Grignon, the Peer Engagement Team leader, told us about some of the discussion calls that have been planned to spark the interests of our peers, such as the book club, Sip and Tell, and more. She also encouraged peers to complete the Getting to Know You questionnaire if they haven’t already done so. This is PCB’s way of learning what activities and topics are of interest to peers. The Peer Engagement Team can also provide mentors for those who may be more comfortable in a one on one situation than a discussion group.
Our afternoon session began with our team and project updates. Mary Ann Grignon stated that the Peer Engagement Team gave 5 stipends to first-timers in the attempt to help as many peers to get to the conference as possible. There were no applicants for our Merit Award.
The Advocacy and Governmental Affairs report was presented by Chris Hunsinger. The team worked on helping the counties to understand the need for accessibility in voting machines and discussed accessibility with the state concerning absentee voting. The team also made sure to inform the Department of Labor and Industry of our negative position on the possible merging of BBVS and OVR. Her biggest hope for the team is to create a place on our website where bills can be posted and all those who are interested can check on their progress.
John Horst presented his report as the Director of Community Affairs by relating that the office continues to get calls from those who have heard of our organization and are expressing interest in it. He also continues to stay in contact with consumer advocacy groups in the area and serves on the board of The Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. John’s position as the Director of Community Affairs is ending at the end of this year, and he expressed his appreciation for being able to work with our organization.
The AccessiDocs’ update was presented by Tony Swartz. He listed the projects that have been completed and those that are still in process. There has been little progress in developing this project as a source of revenue, nor has there been any progress in developing the AccessiDocs website. He stated that the future of this project depends on the following: Further recruitment of volunteers for this service, and more importantly, a marketing strategy of the service and the formation of a marketing team. Tony stated that he will continue to be responsible for the technical part of the project, but he will not be involved in the promotion of the project and in marketing it as a funding stream. He was pleased that so many attended the breakout session on AccessiDocs. He expressed the hope that there would be help with the marketing and promotion of this project.
Sue next presented the Communications Team report. Their work is ongoing, with posts by Bob and Rose to Facebook and Twitter, the update of the PCB Information Line (773-572-6314) by Ed Facemyer and the quarterly production of The PCB Advocate. She reported that this year was the first time the team has used Facebook ads for marketing our organization. Facebook was used for the BBVS survey, the SPARK event and for our Merit award. She stated that Facebook is a venue which we will be using in the future. The team has also been working on a general content policy, which will be used as a guideline for the future. The policy will soon be ready for approval.
The Fund Development Team report was next and was presented by George Holliday. George thanked everyone who had participated in the calendar raffle and the MMS contest. He also encouraged us to purchase the PCB iced tea and wine glasses. He thanked all those who worked in the exhibit hall and the members of the team. Mary Ann Grignon gave the auction update. She began by thanking everyone who helped with the auction and expressed the hope that they would come back and help next year. Our total for this year’s auction was $3,180.
Jule Ann next presented the Technology Access Team report. Most of the work this year has been concentrated on developing forms and registration forms and on access on the internet. They have also been working on alternatives for the information line, as there had been problems with it.
She added 2 items to the Vision Loss Resource Team report. 1. The support group call, which will be starting in January, will be confidential. 2. The team is also starting a tip service, which will be available on the information line consisting of small sound bites of information which will hopefully be helpful to those who are experiencing vision loss and who are struggling with adjusting to blindness.
Sue added that the Administrative Task Force, consisting of the Executive Team plus Mary Ann Grignon and Thomas Reid, is working very hard to ensure a smooth transition to the next presidency to save as much time, money and as many resources as we can. We are looking to hire a fulltime staff person in April. This will be a virtual position. The person does not have to reside in Harrisburg but should be able to get there when necessary. Stay tuned to the PCB-L for a job announcement in January. She asked us to spread the word as far and wide as we can.
Tom Burgunder next presented the Site Selection report. He began by thanking the members of the Conference Program and Planning Team. He told us that our conference attendance was down over 20 percent this year to last year’s attendance. There is a minimum sleeping room requirement and a minimum food and beverage requirement. If we are unable to meet these requirements, PCB is obligated to make up the difference. He was certain that we would be able to meet the sleeping room requirement but not sure about the food and beverage one. He said that the Conference Team will be addressing these issues in order to raise our conference attendance in the future. To that end, we will be returning to the Crowne Plaza in Harrisburg for our 2020 conference. However, we are going to work on resolving these issues before setting a date and a location for the 2021 conference. He concluded by expressing the highest praise for the staff of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Michael Zaken next presented the budget for 2020. A motion was made and seconded to accept the budget and was passed.
Carla Hayes, leader of the Parliamentary Team presented the first reading of 2 of the 4 resolutions which would be voted on at our Sunday morning business meeting. The first one provided that “all nonprofit and governmental entities which provide services to members of the blind and visually impaired and deafblind communities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” provide information about these entities in a format which is accessible to the individuals receiving these services. The second resolution was a courtesy resolution to be sent to all volunteer organizations and is to be used as a framework; the names of the organizations are to be added as needed.
John Luttenberger next read the proposed bylaw amendment. There was some discussion and some debate on this issue, with two peers speaking in favor of it and two against. A vote was taken, and the proposed amendment did not pass.
Our elections were held next. Tony read the slate of officer candidates. All the candidates were elected by acclamation. The officers for the next 2 years will be: President, Chris Hunsinger; First Vice-President, Mary Ann Grignon; Second Vice-President, Rosemary Martin; Secretary, Jacqueline Wissinger; Treasurer, Michael Zaken. Tony next read the slate of candidates for two-year positions on the board. They were: Jule Ann Lieberman, George Holliday, Bob Shingleton and Scott Stauffer. All were elected by acclamation. The elections of Mary Ann and Rose as officers left 2 vacant one-year positions on the board. John Anderson and Wil Grignon were nominated from the floor and were elected by acclamation to fill these positions. Tony administered the Oath of Obligation and congratulated those who were elected.
Tom Burgunder concluded the proceedings by inviting anyone who was interested to serve on the Conference Program & Planning Team. He also told us that he is planning to step down as the Conference Coordinator after next year’s conference and is looking for an assistant who would be interested in serving in his position next.
Our banquet and awards ceremony were held on Saturday evening. Jule Ann Lieberman presented the PCB Peer Excellence Award by a surprise phone call to Ed Facemyer. The PCB Community Impact Award was next presented, also by phone call, to Be My Eyes by Mary Ann Grignon. The recipient of the PCB John Horst Champion of Independence was presented to Shelly Faust Jones. The award was presented by John Horst. Our final award, TheReImage Leadership Award was presented to Dr. Andre Watson by Sue Lichtenfels.
Thomas Reid, who was not physically present at the banquet, introduced our keynote speaker for the evening using technology. Day Al-Mohamed joined us via Skype to discuss her film, The Invalid Corp, and was available for a Q&A session after a screening of the film. Ironically, due to technical difficulties, the film was streamed without video but with narration and description. The film was about a corps of men who were unable to serve in the regular military due to being wounded in the Civil War and who served their country by being transferred into The Invalid Corps. Day had researched this corps thoroughly and had planned to write a book about it but chose to make a film because it would reach more people. One of the projects that Day would like to work on is a web series about people with disabilities that we should all know about but don’t. Day asked for our help in finding such stories. The film was very interesting and informative, as was her presentation.
Our Sunday morning business meeting began with the necrology report. Five of our peers had passed away since our last conference.
Carla Hayes next read the first resolution regarding accessible reading materials. After some lengthy discussion, the Secretary of Labor and Industry was added to those who will receive copies of it and the Pennsylvania Association of the Blind was changed to the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. This resolution passed. A motion was made and passed that 2 similar resolutions be created and sent to those who volunteered their time to assist with the dart tournament and to the city traffic planners who arranged that the guide dog relief areas could be negotiated safely. These resolutions are to be created by the Parliamentary Team and approved by the Executive Team. The last 2 courtesy resolutions passed with an amendment to the second resolution that our event be referred to as the “Conference and Convention.” Carla concluded by thanking the members of the team and encouraged others to join next year.
This was followed by our Q&A and Feedback portion of the meeting. John Luttenberger asked when the Oath of Obligation for those who were not present at the conference would be administered. Sue stated that it would be done at the next Open House call. Brent Kessler suggested that the conference begin to tailor more events and activities to the Millennials. Carla suggested that we contact the ACB Special Interest Affiliate for Millennials for advice on how we can accomplish this goal. Al Pietrolungo suggested that we find a way to allow those who cannot physically attend the conference to do so by phone or Skype. John Horst suggested that ACB scholarship winners from Pennsylvania be strenuously pursued in order to hold their interest in our organization. Tom invited all those who were interested to join the Conference Program and Planning Team to express their ideas. He also added that if we make it too easy to attend the conference via phone or Skype, we might as well have a virtual conference because no one would attend. Jeanette Schmoyer expressed the feeling that PCB is a family and that being at the conference felt like home. She encouraged the older peers to be grandparents to the younger ones and bring them along. We all expressed our gratitude with a round of applause to John Horst for all that he has done for our organization, and Sue publicly thanked Tony Swartz for his guidance, wisdom and humor throughout her tenure as the president of PCB. Thomas Gumby, one of our first-timers, expressed his admiration for our organization and suggested that some kind of musical event might be added. There was a round of applause for all volunteers who so willingly helped to make our conference such an enjoyable event. We had a special round of applause for Christina, who so ably supported all the teams in their conference endeavors. Chris Hunsinger, our new president, expressed her desire to listen and to do her best for PCB.