Tag: guest blogger



6 Feb 16

By Jo Swenson

2015 was a landmark year for Broadway. It boasted a handful of new hits as well as long-running classics. One of the aspects of last year on Broadway was the diversity of characters represented, from the 2015 Tony Award-winning Fun Home that was the first musical to star a lesbian main character to Hamilton that cast the founding fathers as people of color. Along with these new musicals there was also a revolutionary revival of Spring Awakening.

The original production of Spring Awakening opened in December 2006 starring Lea Michele, of Glee fame, and Jonathan Groff, who you can hear as the voice of Kristoff in Disney’s Frozen. At the time the production was a bold new musical that explored teenage sexuality and life at the turn of the century (the musical was based on a play by the same name). Given the setting the characters spoke formally but when it came to the songs they employed contemporary musical styles and language. The show was successful and gathered a strong following of young people before it closed in January 2009.

It is unusual for a musical to be revived on Broadway less than 10 years after the original production closed but the 2015 production added a new, revolutionary element. It was going to star hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing actors alike and be accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. As opening night of the revival approached many wondered how it was possible for a musical to star deaf actors. Many people I know thought that there was not going to be any singing, just signing. Others were unsure how many of the actors were actually going to be deaf or if it was simply going to be hearing people signing and singing. Yet director Michael Arden pulled it off beautifully.

About half of the cast was deaf and half was hearing. Of the three main characters two were deaf and one was hearing. All of the actors signed the majority of the show. The moments when they were not allowed to sign—for example, in a classroom scene where they were told off for signing instead of speaking—the words were projected onto a screen that was incorporated into the set. The characters who were portrayed by deaf actors were given another actor to sing for them. This allowed for the musical to employ deaf actors without the show being silent for the hearing audience members. It worked seamlessly and even at points added an extra depth to the characters as the actors and singers interacted. Also having deaf and hard of hearing characters play characters who are misunderstood and not listened to by the adults of the show was a powerful thing.

In addition to employing more deaf and hard of hearing actors than any other musical currently running, the show also had the first person in a wheelchair on Broadway. Well, I should clarify while there have been actors who have been in wheelchairs as part of their characters, but none of them needed the wheelchair. Ali Stroker uses a wheelchair on and off stage and was cast as a character who was not written as needing to have a wheelchair but she was the best actress for the role so she got it no matter her mobility.

This revival of Spring Awakening proved that anyone who works hard enough has a right to be on a Broadway stage. The original production did not include deaf and hard of hearing actors or anyone in a wheelchair, yet this new production musical still had the same power, if not more, with an inclusive and diverse cast. Hopefully 2015 was the beginning of a trend of diversifying Broadway.

If you would like to see what the production looked like, here is a link to one of their rehearsals (warning: mature language):

For more information about Deaf West (the theatre company that put on this production) head to www.deafwest.org

 

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16 Nov 15

By Michelle Russell

What an amazing Event!

Last night I attended my fourth Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction (the sixth one they’ve held). As I reflect on the night one word comes to mind:

GIVE….

G ~ Guiding Eyes for the Blind

A golden lab puppy named Honey meets Autumn

Future Guide Dog Honey meets Autumn!

The event was attended by 24 puppy raisers from NH, ME and MA and 6 puppies in training  (3 black Labs and 3 yellow Labs).

The hit of the party was 8-week-old yellow Lab “Honey” that was carried around and loved by all.  This event is a special night for the puppy raisers. It is a chance to socialize with each other while supporting a cause that is at the core of each of us. This is to provide the gift of love and raise a puppy for approximately 14 months and then give it back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. This priceless gift – a Guide Dog will provide a person with vision loss, not only independence and mobility but also companionship.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind receives check

Guiding Eyes for the Blind receives check from 2020 Vision Quest

The dinner works as a wonderful training venue for our pups.  It allows the puppies to practice greeting people, settling at the tables with other dogs and practicing good house manners while food is being served. We each appreciate the chance to be welcomed with our pups by all of those attending the event.

Pat Weber, the Regional Manager for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and Bill LeBlanc, the NH Region Coordinator, accepted a check from 2020 Vision Quest of $20,200 for the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

A second check for $20,200 was given to the NH Association of the Blind.

I ~ Inspiration

NH Association for the Blind receives a check from 2020 Vision Quest.

NH Association for the Blind receives a check from 2020 Vision Quest.

The culmination of the dinner is getting the chance to hear Randy Pierce speak.  The slideshow that accompanied Randy’s talk reviewed some of his amazing accomplishments as a blind athlete this past year: running the Boston Marathon and the National Championship, being the first blind athlete to compete in the Tough Mudder in LA, watching the amazing video and then Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Throughout the slideshow Randy mentioned his beloved Guide Dog Quinn who passed away from cancer a year and a half ago. His dedication and devotion to Quinn is evident as you hear Randy’s voice quiver at the mention of his unforgettable pup. All of the puppy raisers also learn by watching Randy’s Guide Dog Autumn working the event with Randy.  She is a beautiful black and tan Labrador retriever that Randy received from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The array of silent auction items.

The array of silent auction items to raise money for our worthy causes.

V ~ Vision

My take away “nugget” from Randy last night was this: “You do not need to have sight to have Vision.”

Randy has vision. He is a goal setter. We found out that in the next year, Randy plans on writing a book. It was fun watching Randy act as an auctioneer – one of the special auction items was to be emailed pages of the book he will be writing each month. The silent auctions were fabulous. It was fun to take my pup “Gary” and walk by all of the incredible silent auction items. What a great way to raise money for the 2020 Vision Quest charity.

E ~ Education  

Lively participation in our live auction.

Lively participation in our live auction.

One of the key missions of 2020 Vision Quest is to lead and inspire students and professionals to reach beyond adversity and achieve their “peak potential.” It is mind boggling to think that Randy and 2020 Vision Quest have spoken to 45,000 students. He recounted letters he has received from some of the schools. Just recently,  a student that attended one of Randy’s presentations was going to drop out of school — but decided not to because of the inspiration and impacting message that he received from Randy. He does this all while integrating life lessons into little stories that teach about overcoming obstacles by managing adversity.

By attending the Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction, I am able to support the organization that is so important to me – Guiding Eyes for the Blind – but I gain so much from Randy.  He inspires me to do more…. To push myself…..  To set Goals…. To have vision…  in both my personal life and in my career.

“To Believe and Achieve Through Goal Setting, Problem Solving, and Perseverance!”

Thank you, Randy… you GIVE .

Bio:

Barnaby and MichelleMichelle Russell, MBA, is a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind and a NH Region Volunteer.  She has raised 3 pups, currently one of the pups she raised – Black Labrador Retriever “Randy” is in NYC working as a bomb detection dog keeping us safe. The puppy that she is currently raising (pup #4) is 5-month-old black Lab “Gary” who attended the dinner. She is also a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Nashua, NH. Please visit her website.

If anyone is interested in becoming a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind or buying/selling a home in NH they can contact Michelle@NHselecthomes.com for more information.

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24 Oct 15

By Jose Acevedo

Jose and Randy hiking.

Jose and Randy hiking.

On October 21st, 1991, I walked out of Malden hospital just outside of Boston with a new lease on life. Just 3 days earlier, I had attempted to end my life. It wasn’t a cry for attention–I was deeply depressed and honestly wanted to die. I recognized at the time that life had its ups and downs and thinking it through logically, as well as accounting for where I was emotionally, I felt that living simply wasn’t worth it. I honestly don’t know if everyone feels like this at some point, or if it is only a subset. Is it 1, 50, or 99% of us that faces deep depression at some point? Despite varied research findings, I don’t know and frankly, it’s irrelevant to my message. A good friend encouraged me to write down this story when I shared portions of it recently, and I realize that even if it only touches one person, it will have been worth it. As you read, please consider the possibility that you or someone you care about may need help and pushing through any awkwardness towards open dialogue could make all the difference.

Without jumping into all of the details, I’ll summarize the various aspects of my life that influenced my state of being at the time. My home life was terrible with a lot of bad history and I had very little relationship with my parents. I had made bad choices and alienated my closest friends. High school was over and I wasn’t on my way to college, so I felt adrift. The tipping point was reached when a close friend died in a tragic accident, leaving me to face questions of mortality for the first time, seemingly alone.

Alone. What a tricky little concept. When we’re there, in the roughest of times wrestling with our demons, some of us can’t see anything or anyone that we imagine could truly help. Or, we don’t want help for various reasons, including feeling unworthy like I did. In these moments, we feel utterly alone. Yet the reality is that we are surrounded by so many people and resources that can help. For perhaps the first time in human history, it’s nearly impossible to not trip over some well-meaning person or organization that can assist with just about any problem we might have – at least here in the states. In our darkest personal moments, there are almost always a number of people who care about us, either personally, or at least as fellow people.

Self portrait during dark times.

Self portrait during dark times.

When I was at my lowest point in October of 1991, it didn’t matter that my future had plenty of possibilities to be bright. I didn’t care that people loved me – I didn’t love myself. To be more precise, I think I probably hated myself. It’s tough to say exactly through the haze of time and change, but that’s likely true on some levels. Ironically, I had volunteered as a peer counselor in high school and had formal training on this kind of thing. I knew the symptoms of depression and resources available better than most but when it came down to it, I couldn’t see through the fog of my own depression and didn’t value my own life enough to cherish it. I vividly recall considering my options on the afternoon of Thursday, October 17th, when I hit rock bottom. I remember eyeing a local police officer and wondering if I could wrestle his gun away for personal use, sifting through toxic chemicals available in the basement to drink in volume, and watching trains roll by on nearby tracks. What if I failed to get the gun or the officer was hurt? What if the chemicals ruined my internal organs but left me alive, or the train crippled but didn’t kill me? No thank you. I share these details to make it clear that contrary to any sensationalized image of an obviously emotional time bomb ticking away its final moments, I was the picture of rationale thought that day, logically weighing exclusively bad options. In the end, it was 64 over the counter sleeping pills for me. I even went to 4 different stores to purchase them without unwanted attention.

Luckily, the human body doesn’t easily tolerate vast amounts of weird chemicals so you’re more likely to get really sick and vomit than anything else with this kind of attempt. One doctor would later tell me that the manufacturers of such pills put a little something nauseous in every pill, but I’ve heard and read conflicting reports since. Regardless, I wrote my suicide notes that Thursday night, overdosed, and went to sleep – hoping it would be forever. I can’t tell you exactly how sick I got that night or how close to serious harm. I only know that I was found in rough shape the next morning and rushed to the hospital.

My sketchy memories start that morning with trying to make the bed, while it and I were covered in vomit, trying fruitlessly to pretend to the caring person who found me that nothing was wrong. My next memories are in the hospital as my family arrived, then being transferred to another hospital by ambulance, meeting with various nurses, and trying to pee in a cup for them so they could determine what exactly was inside me. I even remember that I was such a mess, I tipped over a full cup of urine in my completely disoriented state, much to the dismay of the medical staff. I probably have about 60 seconds of recall scattered across 12 hours that day, before I started to come down from my really bad trip in Malden Hospital’s psychiatric ward. I do remember that as I tried to eat dinner that night, my arms were shaking quite a bit – a lingering side effect of the drugs still in my system. I was in a frightening place, surrounded by strangers, trying to play it cool, and I couldn’t even get food to my mouth. It’s still hard for me to think about to this day, without feeling minor emotional aftershocks.

I spent that weekend getting clean in the hospital, but only because I couldn’t sign myself out as an adult until Monday. I sat in group and individual therapy sessions, spoke superficially about my problems, and faked a desire to get better. That Saturday, a friend I barely knew at the time came and brought me clean underwear. It may seem like a small gesture, but it meant a whole lot to me and we grew much closer that coming year. Only years afterwards, when we had drifted apart like people do, was I able to express my gratitude for his act of kindness. It had sparked a desperately needed bit of gratitude in me and on some level, revealed a glimpse of the fact that people really did care. On Monday morning I signed the appropriate paperwork and wandered out into the next phase of my life, not much better equipped to face my depression than when I had walked in.

24 years later, this is a cry for attention. I know suicide prevention day/week/month is in the rear view mirror, but this is a topic that simply doesn’t ever get enough attention, so yes, I’m crying out. I’m crying for people to open their eyes and hearts to a massive hole in our society that last year reported the highest suicide rate in the US since 1987. Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst 10-24 year olds, accounting for more deaths each year than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. I’m crying for each of us in a position to help, that we would act with compassion, ask the uncomfortable questions, make ourselves available, and refuse to let the stigmas around mental illness and self-harm continue to be perpetuated. I’m crying for those struggling with depression to take one more chance at life and seek help.

Jose poses at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Reaching new heights on Kilimanjaro.

I was reminded on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro of a decision I came to years ago, after breaking free of my own depression. If I want my life to have any one specific impact, it is to share my experiences in ways that would help others live. That those in need would feel just a little less alone and seek help, and that those nearby would be more quick to offer it. Scaling Kili was one of the hardest challenges I have ever undertaken. I keep telling people, it was only about 30% physical and 70% mental. At that altitude, unless you are an elite athlete or you have trained a whole lot, your body simply starts to fail. You can breathe, but you aren’t getting enough oxygen per breath. By summit day, every single member of our team was dealing with multiple symptoms of altitude sickness – shortness of breath, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, light headedness, disorientation… you name it. You don’t make it to the top of Uhuru peak at 19,341 feet because you feel great – you make it because you choose to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. You reach the top of the world because you persevere, even when you don’t want to anymore and feel like you can’t. Eventually, when you get back to normal altitude and you get more oxygen, you can truly appreciate what you’ve accomplished and be thankful. Before getting oxygen and rest however, I described the summit experience in the moment as the most defeated I have ever felt after a victory.

I sure am glad I went up that mountain, and that I came back down. It is not lost on me that mountain climbing is a great metaphor for dealing with adversity and just as we made our last push for the summit of Kilimanjaro during the deepest hours of night from midnight ‘til dawn, so were the worst years of my depression utterly dark. Just like I stumbled up through switchbacks for hours on end a month ago, wanting to quit and doubting I would ever reach the top, the years after my suicide attempt are somewhat of a blur. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, think of all the dreams you quickly forget each morning when you wake up. Try to remember them even 5 minutes after brushing your teeth, let alone years later, and you can’t even be certain the memories are of your own making vs something you may have seen on TV.

After leaving the hospital 24 years ago today, I politely refused medication and therapy. In my mind, if I couldn’t figure out how to survive without help, I shouldn’t live. What a stubborn idiot I was. I’m eternally grateful it all worked out in the end, but it was touch and go for years. If you knew me between 1991 and probably around … 1996, you knew a dead man walking. I was so depressed during that period that I barely recall the early 90s. Months and months of my past are simply lost based on how little I cared at the time. If you did know me back then, you may have caught a glimpse or a steaming heap of that particular symptom – how little I cared, for myself and others. There was a façade that I was trying super hard to make true, so congratulations if that’s what you saw. The truth is I was extremely selfish and made a further high volume of bad decisions during that phase of my life. What I did do however, that worked out in the end, was to choose one thing I hated about myself at a time and work to change it. It didn’t happen overnight and I still make mistakes today, but eventually the scales tipped the other way.

In the beginning, I thought about killing myself multiple times daily. That faded to once daily, then every few days, then weekly, and eventually monthly. It didn’t matter that good things were going on in my life or that I had great people who cared about me. I was secretly struggling with these emotions and at any moment, I could have ended it. One day, years later, I realized months had gone by and I simply didn’t feel that way anymore. I actually recall the occasion. I was on my way to work one morning and saw a small child passed out in the back seat of his mother’s car. Mom was navigating her station wagon around a rotary and this little boy was only loosely strapped into his car seat, such that he was leaned forward unconscious on the back of his mom’s seat. For whatever reason, this blissfully exhausted child mashed up against the driver’s seat at an awkward angle struck me as beautifully funny and I laughed out loud to myself. I realized in that moment that I had fallen back in love with life again. Perhaps not even again, but for the first time in my adult life.

Where am I even going with all of this? I suppose it comes back to a few key concepts:

  1. So many of us struggle with depression and specifically, thoughts of hurting ourselves or even taking our own lives. Even if only through the power of shared experience, you are never, ever alone.
  2. To borrow from other campaigns, it gets better. Or, I should say that it can. Ultimately, it comes down to choice. Depression may be a phase or a life long struggle, but there are choices you can make and steps you can take to make things better.
  3. Don’t ever be ashamed or afraid to ask for, accept, or offer help. Whichever one of those invisible boundaries you break through, it may just be the connection that makes all other things possible.

This whole experience is something I am completely available to talk about. If you feel alone and ever consider harming yourself, I hurt for you. Whether you are facing your own demons or thinking of a friend, please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help in any way. I own no capes and can’t solve your problems, but I can find time to listen really well and offer my own perspective if you think that may help. Whether it’s me, someone else you know, or specifically someone you don’t, seek help. No one should have to face this by themselves. I’m not a professional in this space and contrary to my own journey, I strongly recommend seeking professional help, but we can talk about that and other options you have. That’s the key: you always have options, no matter what it feels like. Speaking of help, if someone makes the offer, they’ve made a choice – they’ve put themselves out there. They care on some level and have broken through at least some levels of discomfort to be there for you. Try not to dismiss these offers off hand, as is so easy to do for various reasons from embarrassment to attempted selflessness. Respect their choice and effort – see where it may lead. I didn’t accept as many offers as I should have and my road was much harder as a result, needlessly, for me and probably others.

I’m lucky enough that after facing this head on for over half a decade in my late teens and early twenties, I was able to pick up the pieces and move on, depression-free since. I’m still a passionate and oft-times fickle person, and I still make plenty of mistakes – just ask my closest friends and family. But for years, I have experienced a love of life and found joy in the little things. I’ve been able to navigate a successful career, build loving relationships with people I care about, enjoy the present deeply, and look forward to so much more in the future. That’s not necessarily possible for everyone who battles depression, but various strategies for balance and opportunities for happiness exist if you choose life.

If you need emergency help, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1-800-273-8255. If you aren’t in immediate danger and think trading perspectives with me would be of any assistance on your journey, please email me by clicking here.

I know this was a long read and may have been tough in portions. Thank you for taking the time to get all the way through. Thanks as well to my dear friend Randy Pierce, who has been an incredible source of strength and support to me through the years – including the invite for this guest blog post.

Be well,
jose

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19 Sep 15

By Greg Neault

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
–Robert Frost

Group of climbers posing at the summit of a mountain in the summertime

The “Lost Boys!”

Robert Frost’s classic verse feels every bit as true today as it did in 1916. A commentary on deviation from the norm, it extols the virtues of a life spent traveling off the beaten path. Taking the path less traveled can sometimes seem a daunting task–people have a natural fear of the unknown. The temptation to stick to known routes and the feeling of comfort we get from the familiar often overshadows our desire for growth and change. However, sometimes life gives us some much needed encouragement to blaze new trails, often in the form of mistakes!

As this blog hits social media, a Monday morning will be unfolding. Breakfast will be eaten, commutes undertaken and a return to the safe and comfortable routine of the work week begins. As your morning is commencing I shall find myself embarking on a journey down a path much less traveled in my circles, somewhere between the Tanzanian city of Arusha and Camp 1 at 9,400 ft on the flanks of Mt Kilimanjaro. As I now sit at my desk at home amid a flurry of activities aimed at preparing for this adventure, I find myself reflecting on the path that led me to this juncture. That path forked unexpectedly one August day in 2008 and has continued that trend, much to my benefit.

The first of these fated forks occurred as this path of mine crossed that of some other folks in the White Mountains. A half dozen spirited gents up from Boston on a weekend outing to hike the Bonds. We shared a campsite and a few laughs on the first night of our backpacking trip through the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We bid them adieu in the morning as we moved on, expecting it would be the last we’d see of them. Little did we know, a mistake was to encourage the blazing of some new trail on their part, both literally and metaphorically. Two days later, we encountered the same, although much less spirited, group of gents. They had taken a bit longer a stroll than planned and were now quite far from their beds with little sunlight remaining. We offered them an alternative route out of the woods and a ride to their car, an offer they accepted with great verve. The miles hiked that day with the Lost Boys, as we had dubbed them, proffered more bonds than had their hike the day before. I left the Pemigewasset Wilderness with sore feet and what I anticipated would be lifelong friendships.

Sadly, after three years of adventuring together, my friend Christian Gagnon was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He was very suddenly hospitalized and, with a weakened immune system, was unable to return to the wilderness or engage in the outdoor activities that he loved so much. I spent the next few month’s weekends alternating between hikes, hospital visits, and attending to my other responsibilities. It was on one of these hikes that the path forks again, but this time, the mistake was mine.

Group standing on the summit in the wintertime.

Meeting up on Mt. Hale!

I was out for a hike on a crisp December day with a relatively new friend, in Aaron Sakash. We had designs on climbing Mt Hale via the aptly named Hale Brook Trail. However, an error on my part lead Aaron and myself astray, hiking up the wrong access road and finding ourselves at the North Twin trailhead. We were amidst the debate as to what our plan of action should be from there, when we were happened upon by a half dozen spirited ladies and gents out for a winter’s hike. The shepherd having become the sheep, I was informed by one of these gents that Hale was their goal as well and there was a route to access it from the North Twin Trail via an unmarked and unofficial trail. After laughing off his directions (take a left at the tall straight skinny tree seemed a bit ridiculous at the time), he asked us to join their group for the trip to the trail junction, he would point out the turn and we could carry on about our way. He warned, however, that they may slow our progress a bit, as his friend Randy was blind.

I was taken aback. I had left my brief conversation with the man without so much as an inkling that he couldn’t see me as we spoke.  My disbelief was elevated further when he told me that not only was this blind man hiking, but that he also intended to summit all 48 four-thousand foot peaks in the state in a single winter. When you don’t know, all you can do is doubt, and that is precisely what I did. We hiked with the group for the better part of that day and, by virtue, got to hear more about their plan and process along with their mission to reach out to people and raise money for great charities. At the conclusion of the trek, he invited us to look him up on social media to track his progress along the way. Once again, we bid them farewell, figuring our paths may not cross again.

Christian Gagnon posing by a peak.

Christian Gagnon.

Whenever I visited Christian in the hospital, he always asked if I had been on any hikes lately. At first, I felt bad telling him about my woodland adventures while he was stuck in that sterile hospital environment. I realized shortly, however, that he really wanted to hear about it. He couldn’t do it himself, so it was better to experience it second hand than not at all. When next I visited, I had quite the tale for my friend. “You’ll never guess what I saw on my last hike,” I said, and then told him of my encounter with the blind man who aimed to climb the 48 in ONE single winter! Like mine, his eyes went wide at hearing this, but where mine had been filled with skepticism, his were full of wonder and possibility.

“What are you going to do?” he asked me.

I was puzzled by this question. Christian was undergoing treatments for his leukemia which involved chemotherapy, radiation, blood transfusions, and a lot of medications. Some times he was more lucid than others. My first thought was that he must be a bit confused, not quite following the story. But, he was on point. “To help him–you have to help him!” was his reply. Christian told me that most people don’t do things like that with their lives. He said when you see somebody trying to do something special, something great, something selfless, that it is your responsibility to help them do it. He also told me that he hoped he would get to meet this man when he was feeling better, he wanted to hike with him and hear about his journey.

Unfortunately, Christian’s journey was cut short. I read the story of the day I found the Lost Boys as we laid him to rest on March 2, 2012, just days before Randy completed his 48th winter peak.

I may have lost my friend, but I have not lost his wisdom. Since that time I have done whatever I could to help Randy reach his goals, however small or large a contribution I could make, and I will continue to do so. The doubt and skepticism that once clouded my vision has been replaced with the wonder and possibility that made Christian’s vision 20/20.

As I sit here on the verge of another great adventure I look back on the road that lead me to it. I accidentally took the one less traveled by, and that HAS made all the difference.

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20 Jun 15

By Randy Pierce

“When is the last time you did something for the first time?” – shared at Mt. Snow Tough Mudder and every tough Mudder

TEAMwork at the tough mudderThere is something invigorating and life changing for many of us when attempting something new or facing a particularly poignant challenge. I believe this is amplified when you undertake it as a team due to the power of giving and receiving support along that course. This is the essence of the gifts available during a Tough Mudder. Recently I undertook my third Tough Mudder, all within the last year and all filled with different aspects of the same rewarding result.

I am by no means suggesting that a Tough Mudder is the snake oil cure for all which may ail you. I am, however, confident it is one avenue amongst many for you to challenge yourself to undertake something new, something difficult for you perhaps and most importantly to be part of a team in which you may in equal measure give and receive support towards the goal. I’ve blogged about the Power of Purpose previously and now I cannot well enough express how much I value the rewards of “Team” and how pleased I was to have a school share with me the acronym: Together Everyone Achieves More.

In order to illustrate this in our recent June 7 Tough Mudder at Mt. Snow Vermont, I think it best to refer you to the words of one of my teammates in her blog about the entire experience. Her photos, words and obvious emotional impact highlight the above point as powerfully as any of my own words. Thank you Cathy Merrifield and to our entire team!

Read and be inspired by Cathy’s blog!

 

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30 May 15

Introduction from Randy:

There are so many great organizatons who make choices to have a positive difference. As blindness arrived unexpectedly to my life so too did the realization of how many  positive connections it would help create. Such people and groups rarely receive enough attention for their kindness and choices. I hope to help a little this week and I think you too may be moved and maybe even help them along the path…

****

On a cold winter night in 1873, Anna Boyd Ellington, Mary Comfort Leonard, and Eva Webb Dodd created their “club of mutual helpfulness”. This club has grown to an organization of more than 200,000 members, including this one, dedicated to fulfilling Anna, Mary, and Eva’s original motto to “Do Good”.

Around 60 years later, the idea of doing good took on a new form when Ruth Billow, a Delta Gamma who was blind, asked our membership to adopt sight conservation and aide to the blind as our international philanthropy. Many things about Delta Gamma have changed over the years, but our dedication to Service for Sight has not.

I began to take our philanthropy to heart while I was a collegian at DePauw, and even more so now in my career as Development Specialist for the Delta Gamma Foundation, where I am fortunate enough to work with several amazing groups every day.

The Delta Gamma Foundation is extremely proud of the partnerships we have been able to create with both the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) and the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). This year, Delta Gamma sponsored two marathon experiences for individuals who are blind or visually impaired through these organizations.

These partnerships have allowed me to meet some outstanding people, both Delta Gammas and non-Delta Gammas. One such non-Delta Gamma is Randy Pierce, who I first met in Sacramento for the National Marathon Championships and saw again in Boston this spring.

Vaungaylyn and Dave after completing their half of the California International Marathon

Vaungaylyn and Dave after completing their half of the California International Marathon.

Our partnership with USABA also provided the opportunity for a Delta Gamma alumna, Vaungaylyn, to run in the marathon as a sighted guide for a U.S. Navy Veteran. Vaungaylyn registered her run through the Delta Gamma Foundation’s Anchor Run for the Blind program, which allows Delta Gammas to raise funds for veterans with visual impairments through fundraising runs all across the U.S. and Canada.

In addition to sponsorship support, Delta Gammas provided more than 100 hours of service for the USABA’s National Marathon Championships in December, and more than 200 for MABVI’s Team With A Vision in Boston.

Not only do our members strive to “Do Good” by providing service, but they also raise awareness and funds through the Delta Gamma Foundation. Last year, we provided more than $200,000 dollars to 32 organizations all over the U.S. and Canada that aid the blind or visually impaired.

Lee Deadwyler, Development Specialist and Laura O’Brien, Director: Advisers at the Race Expo in Boston

Lee Deadwyler, Development Specialist and Laura
O’Brien, Director: Advisers at the Race Expo in Boston.

Through these marathons, Delta Gammas have been able to establish meaningful, continuous service opportunities to aid the blind or visually impaired communities in their areas. I’ve also learned a lot along these journeys, too. I’ve learned about being brave, and trusting others. I’ve learned that something as small as serving a family dinner or walking new friends back from a pizza party can make a big difference for them, and for you.

We receive a lot of thanks for participating as sponsors and volunteers throughout the weekend, but really we should be thanking the athletes and organizations with which we work. Thank you for the opportunity to meet and serve such inspiring athletes. Thank you for showing us that disability does not mean inability. Thank you for showing us that you can have vision without sight. Thank you for inspiring and motivating us to “Do Good”.

Lee Deadwyler, Development Specialist
Delta Gamma Foundation

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2 May 15

By Greg Neault

Greg and Laura starting out their blind race.

Greg and Laura celebrating their blind race.

“I once was blind, but now I see.” How many times have these words crossed my eyes and ears? But never before have they elicited the response from me that they do now.

Saturday morning found me waking early with a 5k to run at 8am. Not an entirely unusual activity for me on a weekend in the warmer months. But this race was different.

This race I ran blindfolded and remained blindfolded for 6 hours past the finish line. One might say, “Why would you want to run blindfolded?” A legitimate question, for sure.

For one, it was a fundraising event. We were raising much needed revenue for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, helping them to continue their work assisting people to make a successful transition into a life affected by vision loss. The race offered a challenge and a new experience, which I always enjoy. But prime among my motivations for embarking on such an endeavor was to gain perspective.

For three years I have been guiding Randy Pierce through hikes, road races, and obstacle courses. This race provided me with an opportunity to experience life on the other end of the guide/guided relationship. I had high hopes that it would teach me some things about the way I guide and the way Randy experiences that guiding, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I walked into it with preconceived notions as to what the difficulties would be. It was a very large 5k, 10,000 runners strong, in an urban environment with lots of background noise to challenge communications with my guide. I have no experience running blind, and was unaware of how my balance and sense of direction would fare without my eyes to aid them. My confidence level was also a concern. Would I be hesitant to run at a normal pace without my sight?

Greg and Laura run through the streets.

Greg and Laura make great progress.

Race day brought surprising results. The weather was nice, the crowd energetic, the runners forgiving of my missteps and my guide more than able. Only a few noise disruptions to otherwise fluid communication and very successful and respectable 9:45 pace over 3.1 miles.

As welcome as those surprises were, there were some not so welcome, but equally surprising nuances to my adventure. Our post-race activities included a walk around Boston Common, lunch at the Beer Works, gelato in Boston’s famed North End and a subway trip back to our parked car.

Having transitioned from Laura (my race guide) to Loren (my post-race guide), we met with some adversity. Loren had little experience navigating the streets of Boston. Though I have been known to wander Boston somewhat regularly, I had no experience navigating blind. Randy has provided me with direction on numerous occasions, but his path finding is based more around distance, number of blocks traveled and street names. My typical navigation is focused more, as you might guess, on visual landmarks. Unable to see these landmarks, I was forced to describe them to Loren and subject to her interpretation of my articulations. Some missed cues as to our current location led to some frustrations when my directions proved unfruitful after two attempts.

Lunch brought some new challenges as well. Some condescension from our waitress when I misspoke my beer selection coupled with my previously accrued navigation frustrations led to a curt response from me. Fortunately I was blindfolded, so my looks were unable to kill!

One lesson learned over lunch was the utility of a same-sex guide. The public restroom can be a scary place when you’re on your own! I’ve frequented the Beer Works for years, so I’m fairly familiar with the layout of the restroom. That didn’t stop me from spending a few minutes trying to find the hand dryer, imagining all the while the look on the face of the next patron to walk in and discover me blindfolded and scouring the walls with my hands.

My experience with the Blindfolded Challenge was enlightening in many ways. My theories about impending struggles were way off base, and challenges arose where I thought smooth sailing would prevail. When I look back at our recent California Tough Mudder trip, I think of all the focus I placed on the event. In retrospect, I see more obstacles and challenge in the travel, the airport, and the commute than I do in the mud, the hills, and the walls.

Group shot of the runners.

The runners together! Building trust is a key lesson of the day.

The next epiphany was that of trust. The first time I put the blindfold on and WALKED around a track, I questioned my ability to run the race. It was awkward, I felt unstable, and I was more than a bit nervous for myself, my guide, and the general public! I felt unsure as we navigated a track with scant few others using it. How was I going to fare on a street course with 10,000 other runners?! Taking into consideration that I had the benefit of seeing the track immediately before running it, I’m in awe of Randy yet again. The miles of mud, rocks, roots, and potholes of our past endeavors jump out at me and my chest gets a little tight just thinking about it. I watched Randy put his trust in Loren and Sky, whom he had never met previous to our Tough Mudder adventure, which was in a much more technical landscape than my flat track in a quiet park! The level of trust necessary to commit your well being to the discretion of another cannot be overstated. That Randy has entrusted himself to me on so many occasions, whether it be guiding him myself or in trusting that others that I have brought into the fold are quality people that will have his best interests at heart, is one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.

The last, and maybe the most profound takeaway of this experience was the last. After six and a half hours under the blindfold, after running, walking, eating, drinking, navigating restrooms and subways, it was time to call it quits. I removed the blindfold and returned to the ranks of the visually able. When I pulled back the blindfold, there was sensory overload. Bright light, cars, people. Accompanying that rush of visual stimuli was a large sense of relief. I could see again. All the difficulty and frustration left behind with the return to the visual world. Then, just as profound a revelation: the realization that I was experiencing a moment of relief that will never come for those experiencing actual vision loss.

I once was blind to the realities of life with vision loss, but now I see that I once knew very little and now know a small portion of that experience. Life is learning and I’m on the path.

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28 Feb 15

By Denise Ezekiel

The puppies are eager to say hi!

The puppies are eager to say hi!

In November 2014 my husband Mike and I joined many friends at the Peak Potential Fundraising Dinner. We bid on, and won, an amazing trip to tour the Guiding Eyes facilities in New York!

We chose to go during our daughters’ school break. Part of our package included a dinner at a wonderful restaurant called the Moderne Barn, and an overnight stay at a local hotel. We began our tour at the Canine Development Center in Patterson, NY. A lovely woman named Vikki was our guide. We met a geneticist who taught us that the mommy and daddy dogs are paired up very carefully! Some of the labs and shepherds at Guiding Eyes are specifically breeding dogs. They live with loving families, and the female dogs go the Guiding Eyes only when in heat, or when ready to deliver. The dogs are tested for strength of vision, hearing, muscle tone, skin and fur, cardiac and pulmonary systems and longevity. “Samples” from the male dogs are even flown all over the world to other guide dog facilities to strengthen their population. Mother dogs can have 3-4 litters before they are retired as loving pets.

Jordan makes some new friends.

Jordan makes some new friends.

We got to see some very young pups – some born 12 hours prior! Pups stay with their moms while they are nursing – up to about 6 weeks. While the pups are very young, they are introduced to human interaction. Volunteers come in at all hours to massage them, cuddle them, talk to them.

As soon as the pups can see and walk they are put in play areas with the volunteers to start to get introduced to sights and sounds and textures and distractions. Little cloth ribbons are even placed around their abdomens to get them used to the feel of a harness!

At around 8 weeks the pups are weaned from their mothers and go into the puppy pre-school! The puppies are now in groups of 2-3 instead of their larger litters to get them used to more independence. Here they start to work with trainers again in big playpens filled with stairs, slides, tunnels, grates, noises, fans, etc. Also, soft cloth harnesses are put on dogs that will tolerate them. At feeding time dogs are asked to sit and be still and quiet before being fed. It’s amazing how quickly they respond!

Elizabeth plays with Flyer in "puppy pre-school."

Elizabeth plays with Flyer in “puppy pre-school.”

My daughters Jordan and Elizabeth got to go into the training ring with some adorable shepherds named Flyer and Franz to work on some skills. Dogs at this age are learning how to respond to their name, tackle obstacles, distractions, crawl into tight spaces, etc. It’s a big jungle gym but they don’t realize that it’s puppy school!

Pups who seem willing and able to learn are sent from the Patterson facility to live with loving puppy raising families for the next year or so of their lives. Volunteer families, mostly on the East Coast, live with and love on these dogs 24-7. Here the dogs learn their basic commands of sit, stay, etc. They also attend training classes in groups near their homes and start wearing vests and going into public places.

Once the dogs are about 18 months-2 years old they return to the Guiding Eyes Training Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. Loving raisers must say good-bye to their friends and wish them success in their future! Here is where the second part of our tour commenced. We were greeted by Michelle, who was an amazing hostess, and treated us to lunch in the facility. We were also introduced to Tom Panek, President of Guiding Eyes, and his guide, Gus.

The Ezekiel family poses with Wrangler, who is training with the Today Show staff.

The Ezekiel family poses with Wrangler, who is training with the Today Show staff.

At the end of our lunch we had a wonderful surprise, celebrity pup Wrangler was in the building! Wrangler is in puppy training with the Today Show staff and his handler, Saxson. He was adorable and posed with us!

After lunch we met senior trainer, Melinda, and dog in training, Janice. Melinda demonstrated to us Janice learning how to identify a chair. These dogs learn hundreds of words and commands in their training.

The next exciting part of our afternoon was actually being blindfolded and being guided by 2 other dogs in training, Jockey and Anniken. Both are soon to graduate. We walked outside on a path and it was frightening and exhilarating! The dogs will stop to notify you of any change – a curb, a crosswalk, the sound of a car. It was scary for us just being on a safe path, so to imagine the trust put into these dogs to navigate a subway or train or city street (or mountain!) is mind-boggling to me.

The Ezekiels were blindfolded and led around outside by Jockey and Anniken, two dogs in training.

The Ezekiels were blindfolded and led around outside by Jockey and Anniken, two dogs in training.

Guiding Eyes raises about 500 dogs per year, and approximately 150 are placed as Guides for the blind or visually impaired. The dogs who do not pass the strict exams (or as we were told, choose a different career!) are sometimes trained as police/military dogs, autism service dogs, breeding dogs, or adopted out to their puppy raisers or another loving family.

Approximately 10-12 dogs per month graduate from the stringent guide program and are matched to students like Randy. Students come to the Patterson facility and live in dorms with their new dogs for about 3 weeks while undergoing intensive training and getting to know each other. Sometimes, experienced handlers, like Randy, will have the dog delivered to their home for the intensive training. The lifestyle of the handler is matched very carefully to the temperament of the dog. Some dogs are better suited for the city than others, for example. Some, like Autumn, are little spitfires that like adventure! Handlers must be able to provide exercise daily for their dogs and of course veterinary care.

When all is said and done, it costs about $45,000 to raise one dog! Blind humans do not pay for their dogs – they are gifted by Guiding Eyes. All money that is used to support the raising and training of the guide dogs comes from fundraising and donations. Once dogs reach retirement, their handlers are given first choice of adoption, then their puppy raisers, or another family on a very long wait list.

All of the facilities at Guiding Eyes were impeccably clean and warm and filled with loving staff and volunteers from the birth to training to retirement of these dogs. It was an amazing, eye-opening life experience for our family. We appreciate what we have, and appreciate all that goes into training Guide Dogs so that others may have a more independent, fulfilling life.

Thanks to Randy, 2020 Vision Quest and to the staff at Guiding Eyes for all that you do!

Denise, Michael, Jordan, and Elizabeth Ezekiel

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20 Dec 14

By Arielle Zionts

I am a recent graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME. Over 15 weeks, Salt students study and make videos and multimedia. They also each chose to focus in writing, photography, or radio. Rather than focusing on pure reporting, Salt teaches narrative, documentary, and story-based work. Our stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. They have tension or a conflict that is either resolved or being addressed.

I was struggling to find a topic for my second radio story so I googled “miniature guide horse in Maine.” I thought it would be interesting to do a story about someone who uses a guide horse instead of a guide dog. However, Randy’s website appeared in my search results and I began to read about Randy, his dogs, and their adventures. I knew there was a story in Randy and his dogs but I wasn’t sure what it was at first. I was afraid of making a cliché story: man has disability, man pushes limits of disability, listeners feel inspired.

After conversing via e-mail, phone, and text message, conducting two formal interviews, and going on a walk and hike with Randy and Autumn, I knew my story. I was struck by the strength and, to be honest, the adorableness of Randy and Autumn’s relationship. I was also moved when he talked about his former dogs, Quinn and Ostend. My radio story was going to be a relationship story.

In “Guiding Eyes,” Randy’s long-term journey of bonding and training with Autumn is explored and represented through a hiking scene on Pack Monadnock. The story also focuses on the cycle Randy goes through with his guide dogs: getting paired up with a dog, training, working together, death, and repeat.

At Salt’s show opening last week, over 50 people were moved to the point of laughter and tears as they listened to Randy speak about his relationships with his dogs.

To listen to my other radio stories, click here.
To learn more about the Salt Institute, click here.

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13 Dec 14

By Jennifer Streck

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been a part of 2020 Vision Quest since its inception when Randy asked me over for lunch to pick my brain about an idea. From day one, I loved the concept and goals and hold immense admiration for Randy’s courage and drive.

The most awesome part of what he does, in my not-so-humble opinion, is his school outreach. I have been there when Randy has spoken to the elementary classes that my own children were in and left each time inspired and feeling better about the world we live in.

Randy is sitting with the team of 6th – 8th graders on Team Eyrie. Autumn is at his feet.

Randy, Autumn and the 2014 Elm Street Eyrie FLL Team.

Most recently, I escorted Randy to Elm Street Middle School where the Elm Street Eyrie were prepping for their inaugural First LEGO® League (FLL) competition. (Full disclosure: my daughter Bella is part of this team and asked to have Randy come in and speak to the group and help them with their project. As Randy saw Bella take her first steps before I, her mother, did, he owes me for life and is at my beck and call for all appearances.)

Now a little about FLL – it’s not just about the LEGO® robots. As part of these competitions, the teams must also present a project around the theme of the year and work within the core values of FLL – teamwork, cooperation, discovery, mentorship and fun. This time around they needed to address how to assist in learning. It’s a pretty broad category and the kids decided that they wanted to figure out how to help someone who is visually impaired. Randy was a tremendous resource to the kids as he told them the facts of his background and shared with them all of the different ways he learns about the world around him from directions, his environment, the weather, communication tools, computers and everything else.

The team shows him some of the obstacle courses on the FLL table. Randy is using his hands to feel the obstacles as the kids describe what each does and how they program the robot to do the tasks.

Team Eyrie demonstrates the FLL Obstacle Course table to Randy.

The kids were attentive and absorbed a lot. They even got to show Randy the obstacle course table that they used to program the LEGO® robot. As they spoke with Randy, I noticed a change in how they communicated. At first they all spoke at once and their enthusiasm was overwhelming. But then they settled and learned how to communicate in a way that was detailed, thoughtful, and expressive. In the age of “LOL,” “OMG,” and “BRB” this is not as easy as you would think. Just like the robots, these kids were programming their brains and were themselves learning.

As I sat there listening, two themes resonated.

First: Communication is key. Whether it’s explaining where a door is or expressing your point of view – the world stops without key human communication. And I am not talking about Facebook posts, Tweets, texting, or even this blog. Honest-to-goodness human interaction with your voice – words and tone – opens doors to so much for so many.

Second: Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Take chances. It’s harder than it sounds, but if we all try to do #1 to our best ability, there is no fear. Such simple concepts that we all, young and old alike, should keep closer in our playbooks of life. Oh what we could be and what we could give to the world if every day we woke up and took on each day with an open mind, brave heart and emotive spirit. Am I making more of it than it is? Sure. Maybe. I am known to dig a little deeper than necessary at times. But I also know that at the end of the session one of those young men came up to Randy and thanked him because before Randy spoke with them and told them his tale he was afraid around the blind. Now he knew he did not have to be and just needed to communicate in a new way.

The team shows him some of the obstacle courses on the FLL table. Randy is using his hands to feel the obstacles as the kids describe what each does and how they program the robot to do the tasks.

Team Eyrie demonstrates the FLL Obstacle Course table to Randy.

You’re likely asking yourself, “So how did the kids do? Did they win?” The kids went to their first competition on November 22nd. They did a tremendous job all around. Their project focused on the creation of a new app for the visually impaired to lend assistance crossing roads and intersections.

The app relies on the phone’s GPS (which Randy relies on) and BlueTooth technology that would communicate with the stoplights at intersections. When connected a signal would be omitted letting the pedestrian know it was safe to cross and at which street he/she is crossing. They even wrote a letter to the mayor of Nashua explaining their proposal and making themselves available for more questions and further research. (I would never have thought of an app, but that’s why I am raising digital natives – to change the world.)

And in addition, their robot came in 4th out of 16 teams in the Robot Obstacle Course Tournament! (I almost started the wave in the stands – it was so exciting!).

In the end, Team Elm Street Eyrie did not place overall and are not moving onto the States competition but this team pulled together in short order and delivered something that they should be very proud of. They worked as a team, communicated their goals, contributed their best and took some chances. That’s a check in the “win” column no matter what.

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