— National Federation of the Blind takes root in Eastern Panhandle.
It is estimated that over one million people in the U.S., and many more are visually impaired. But blindness need not be the tragedy which it is generally assumed to be.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is a consumer organization of blind people working together to improve opportunities for the blind and the understanding of blindness by the general public. The NFB has affiliates in all fifty states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Boasting more than 50,000 members nationally, there are over seven hundred local chapters in most major cities and surrounding regions.
The purpose of the NFB is to act as a vehicle for collective action by the blind. Since its beginning in 1940, the organization is doing this by providing public education about blindness, information and referral services, scholarships, aids and appliances and other adaptive equipment for the blind, advocacy services and protection of civil rights, employment assistance and support services, development and evaluation of technology, and support for blind persons and their families.
A mantra at the NFB says, “The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight, but the misunderstanding and lack of information that exists. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance.”
Martinsburg residents Keryl and Seante Rustin couldn’t agree more. Keryl is the president and a board member of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle Chapter of the NFB, and has been legally blind for 16 years. Seante, her daughter, serves as secretary and treasurer of NFB-EP, as well as assists her mother when needed.
The purpose at the NFB-EP mirrors that of their parent organization—the complete integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality. This objective involves the removal of legal, economic, and social barriers; the education of the public to new concepts concerning blindness; and the achievement by all blind people of the right to exercise to the fullest their individual talents and capabilities.
It also means the right of the blind to work along with their sighted neighbors in the professions, common callings, skilled trades, and regular occupations they desire within the best of their abilities.
“I lost my sight sixteen years ago, and while looking for a support group, realized there wasn’t anything to my knowledge available here in the Panhandle,” Keryl explained. “So I began a chapter after reaching out to the state organization, so there would be something available here to support both the blind and visually impaired, as well as people who are physically challenged in other ways.”
Keryl started by attending an NFBWV convention in 2012, where she spoke to the organization’s president. “After speaking with her, I knew that I wanted to bring a chapter to the Eastern Panhandle.”
And so she went through the proper administrative process of setting up the charitable non-profit that is the National Federation of the Blind/Eastern Panhandle, and began rallying support on the local level.
“I began by going to different organizations here in the region—United Way, DHHR—and getting the information out, telling them about our group—letting them know that there was an Eastern Panhandle chapter,” she said. “From that point, I decided to have a meet-and-greet breakfast held at the Martinsburg Public Library. We invited politicians and the community to help spread the word. We’ve had our meetings there ever since (the second Saturday of every month).”
Not Defined by Disability
Keryl pointed out that one of the group’s biggest supporters has been the Charles Town Lions Club, which is why she really wants to extend the NFB-EP into Jefferson County.
“One challenge that visually impaired and blind people face is transportation,” she noted. “We’d like to be able to operate a chapter in Jefferson County to better serve that community in the same way we serve Berkeley County. That said, we feel very blessed to work with the Charles Town Lions Club—so it would be very rewarding to organize meetings in their community as well.”
The mission for both Keryl and Seante is to encourage local people who are visually impaired or blind to become members and let them know that their disability does not define them or their life.
“We are independent, and we (the chapter) want to be acknowledged,” Keryl said. “We have the ability to be successful, and we want to inspire our members and others to pursue any endeavor in life that a sighted person would pursue.”
Seante added, “One of the things we’ve discovered over the years is that many people think that, because they have a visual impairment, they have to just take what’s given to them, or they can’t have the same quality of life as a sighted person. So a big goal and component too was to let them know that they can go out, they don’t have to sit in the house or similarly feel isolated. If you go out and venture to do things, and make a wrong turn or something, it’s okay. Life is hard enough for sighted people. Mistakes are okay. They’re just challenges that can be overcome.”
To that end, the NFB-EP’s support mechanism extends not just emotionally or existentially, but physically. “We work to get people the day-to-day help they might need,” indicated Keryl. “I teach cane skills, and educate in other ways. Seante takes us on outings—things that motivate and inspire folks to not just become members, but understand that they too can achieve great things they probably didn’t think they could.”
“Additionally, issues on the local level are brought up at meetings,” said Seante. “Maybe someone knows someone who might need glasses, or is struggling to pay part of an electric bill and there’s an affordability challenge. Again, through the help of the Lions Club of Charles Town, as well as the Inwood Lions Club, we’re able to respond to those needs. But we’re continuing to work to generate additional support—to make the Panhandle aware that we’re here and we still have the same goals, and need that support.”
Make the Commitment
One additional component to the NFB-EP that could serve to both inform and inspire outsiders is their advocacy reach. “Between monthly meetings, we’ve organized donations, worked with women’s shelters, helped flood victims, and extended support to other programs in need,” said Keryl. “It doesn’t just have to be related to the Panhandle or even people who are blind or visually impaired. We reach out to others in the community as well.”
Where one would think that the group has all the work if will ever need in trying to support the local population as well as grow the endeavor, Keryl maintained that the NFB-EP’s motivation is even bigger than most people might think.
“That motivation for me is in recognizing how important it is to impact other people in their lives and living situations. That said, people will call and reach out to me, and express their need for support—groceries, or other issues. I recognize that no matter what, in order to be effective within any endeavor, it’s not just a bias for your own group—you have to extend that generosity and compassion to others.”
Seante echoed the sentiment. “I’ve been part of other organizations as well. One of the biggest things is, you have to continue to give. Because it’s so important to not just take everything and run with it—exclusive to yourself. If you can, help someone with clothing, or a meal, no matter the issues. We’re all affiliated as a charitable non-profit, to not just help the disabled, but anyone if we can.”
As for what lies ahead for the NFB-EP, Keryl is steadfast in her goal to articulate to the community that blindness does not define the character of an individual, that people who are blind or visually impaired have an opportunity to be successful and that they have the support and commitment of the NFB-EP. “But in order to be successful, we all have to work cohesively and support each other—and practice compassion.”
“Like anyone else, we tend to take things for granted,” added Seante. “So, to watch the struggles, but also the triumphs of people trying to do something that so many of us take for granted, like tying your shoe, or getting up and walking up the steps—I’ve come to appreciate all of the things that we don’t typically think about during the day. It’s been a very spiritual experience, and continues to help me realize how I can be of service in this life. It gives a person a deeper perspective and understanding—that we do have the time and the ability, we just have to make that a priority. Make the commitment.”
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Needless to say, the NFB-EP can use all the support it can get, and is actively seeking partnerships, donations, and any type of advocacy that will allow them to continue their mission. (For the record, The Observer, has officially signed on to help the NFB-EP grow its brand and presence throughout the Panhandle.)
Find out more on Facebook right here. Additionally, contact the NFB-EP at 304-620-8463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.