by Helen Selsdon
Helen Keller loved the ocean, but her first swimming trip as a young girl took her by surprise...
"My most vivid recollection of that summer is the ocean. I had always lived far inland and had never had so much as a whiff of salt air; but I had read in a big book called Our World a description of the ocean which filled me with wonder and an intense longing to touch the mighty sea and feel it roar. So my little heart leaped high with eager excitement when I knew that my wish ...was at last to be realized.
No sooner had I been helped into my bathing-suit than I sprang out upon the warm sand and without thought of fear plunged into the cool water. I felt the great billows rock and sink. The buoyant motion of the water filled me with an exquisite, quivering joy. Suddenly my ecstasy gave place to terror; for my foot struck against a rock and the next instant there was a rush of water over my head. I thrust out my hands to grasp some support, I clutched at the water and at the seaweed which the waves tossed in my face. But all my frantic efforts were in vain. The waves seemed to be playing a game with me, and tossed me from one to another in their wild frolic. It was fearful! The good, firm earth had slipped from my feet, and everything seemed shut out from this strange, all-enveloping element—life, air, warmth and love. At last, however, the sea, as if weary of its new toy, threw me back on the shore, and in another instant I was clasped in my teacher's arms. Oh, the comfort of the long, tender embrace!
As soon as I had recovered from my panic sufficiently to say anything, I demanded: 'Who put salt in the water?'"
From "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller, 1903
Image: Courtesy of the Perkins School for the Blind
AFB is kicking off our summer recreation series. Throughout the summer, we'll highlight our favorite recreational activities, along with great resources for making the most of the season. First up: We're heading off to summer camp!
Audrey Demmitt, struggling with her own vision loss, spent a summer working as a nurse at a camp for the blind and was forever changed by the experience: "The growth and learning that takes place in a camp setting is invaluable and cannot be replicated. There is often a sort of magical transformation that takes place in a camper. And they leave with powerful memories of being included, succeeding at new activities, tasting independence, and making new friends which can change them forever."
Read more of Audrey's story.
Lauren Lieberman not only created a summer sports camp for children and teens with visual and hearing impairments, she wrote the book on it (literally). Physical Education and Sports for People with Visual Impairments and Deafblindess is available from AFB Press through the AFB Bookstore. You can also read Lauren's expert tips for young campers who are blind or visually impaired.
For parents, sending a kid off to sleep-away camp for the first time can be a nerve-racking experience. Find out how the mother of a child with multiple disabilities got her son (and herself) ready for camp, and what they discovered along the way.
Another mom writes about her experiences preparing her son, who is blind and autistic, for camping in a tent instead of a cabin.
And finally, if you're looking for listings of camps nationwide, check out AFB's Directory of Services for agencies that provide summer/day camps and after-school programs for children who are blind or visually impaired.
Have fun and save us a spot by the campfire!
by Joe Strechay
I recently learned that John DeWitt passed away. He was the founder of DeWitt & Associates, an organization that provided technology assessment and training in New Jersey for persons who are blind or visually impaired. He also worked for the American Foundation for the Blind from 1978 to 1989 as a resource specialist. John's passing was a great loss to New Jersey, the blindness community, his family, and all of the people he touched through his work and volunteering.
I grew up in New Jersey and I also worked for the state for a period. I knew of John prior to my work, but I first had the opportunity to speak to him when he spoke at a "Circle of Bell Ringers" at the Joseph Kohn Training Center in New Brunswick, NJ. He had an impressive life story.
When I joined AFB in 2009, I found out that he was the first mentor for CTIB, which was the original name for AFB CareerConnect when it started as a database of mentors. In our database, he is mentor number one out of a couple thousand mentors from the United States and abroad. I can remember him calling me a few years ago; he wanted to connect about a possible project. I was in awe, as he was a bit of a celebrity to me. He was genuine and straightforward, which is something I truly value in communication. Friends who are blind from around the state of New Jersey have echoed this sentiment. He was a wonderful person who served as a mentor to many.
After hearing the news and discussing this loss with others, I wanted to commemorate John Dewitt's life. You will find quotes from a number of people about his impact on them and their impressions. If you want to share your own, please add a comment.
"John was a member of the AFB family and an excellent mentor to people with vision loss. His many contributions live on today through AFB CareerConnect and our work with technology. We will always be grateful for his tremendous work to make the world a better place for people with vision loss. Our hearts go out to John's family and friends."—Carl Augusto, AFB president and CEO
"I spoke with John a few weeks ago, and as always, he sounded great—upbeat and thinking about the future. Of course, he was also working to right a wrong. John set so many fine examples, especially for how to live life to the fullest. It's no wonder that he was an extraordinary mentor for CareerConnect, because he was such a great teacher and role model. Thanks, John, for all you did to better lives for people with vision loss." —Paul Schroeder AFB vice president, Programs and Policy
"I met John when I was 22 years of age. I loved technology, we connected immediately. He was a possibility thinker that encouraged me to "always think solutions." He helped me believe in myself and the technology I was using. He told me the "technology would work if I worked the technology." I was privileged to learn from such a kind, intelligent, and giving person. The world of assistive technology is a better place because of Mr. John DeWitt."—David J. De Notaris, director of the Bureau of Blindness & Visual Services, State of Pennsylvania
"John was a good man who wanted to reach as many people as possible who could benefit from the technology available to those who are low vision or blind. His business decisions were not always universally loved, but his desire to provide accessibility to others was what was always on his mind. Working for him provided me the opportunity to learn and gain experience with assistive technology so that I can help others and I will always be thankful to him for that."—Colleen Faupel, teacher of the Visually Impaired (former employee of John DeWitt)
"In March 2002, I became AFB CareerConnect's program specialist. This was the time when the Careers & Technology Information Bank (CTIB) was being transitioned to an online career education and exploration program, highlighting assistive technology and mentors. As Joe mentioned above, John was Mentor #1 and I, too, was impressed by him all of the time. He was kind and always took a moment to chat before getting into business. Being that one of my main responsibilities at the time was to connect users with mentors, I really appreciated how willing John was to mentor anyone I connected him with. Sometimes we marveled at how far we had come with this program and how everything was becoming interactive, where users and mentors could find and connect with each other without an intermediary. But back in those days, we did not have all of the many features we now have and I did a lot of telephone calling to mentors and users and John was one of my favorites to call on. He never turned down the opportunity to mentor others in this program. I'm very glad I had the special privilege of getting to know John DeWitt in this manner. And AFB CareerConnect is very proud to have had him as Mentor #1."—Detra Bannister, AFB CareerConnect employment specialist
You can read more details about John Dewitt's life from his obituary.
by Helen Selsdon
Happy Fourth of July!
Helen Keller fought her entire life for social and economic equality for all. During the 1930s she used the platform of the popular Home Magazine to express her ideas and encourage self-reliance, education, and hope, particularly among women. On the occasion of the Fourth of July, 1934, she encouraged readers to reflect on democracy and the work of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to lift the country out of its economic woes.
"Independence Day" by Helen Keller Home Magazine, July 1934
Image and text courtesy of the Helen Keller Archives, American Foundation of the Blind
When the midsummer months come round, people think seriously about taking a vacation. Every one desires a respite from the pressure of business duties and social obligations. They want to let up, to enjoy, unhampered by nagging care and appointments, the restorative pleasures of the great out-doors and the diversions to which their taste inclines them.
Independence Day is the excuse for all who can to plan some kind of celebration. I imagine they think more about the excursion than about the ideals of the founders of their country, and perhaps that is as it should be.
I, however, cannot think of the Fourth of July without remembering one American who will not have a holiday this Summer – that is, President Roosevelt. I feel we should all have him in our thoughts, whatever our diversions may be. For we have laid upon him a momentous duty in the fulfillment of which he is exerting every power in him.
On that day President Roosevelt will be engaged upon the task of making the ideals of the founders of America triumph. He must of course rely upon the loyalty of the people who put him at the head of the nation to carry through successfully the extensive and important trust they have placed in his hands.
To lead a country in revolution wisely and effectively, without ambition and without bloodshed, demands lofty genius and unbending purpose; and there can be no doubt that a revolution of vast consequences is taking place in America at the present time.
President Roosevelt is building a new state amid the angry opposition of some and the lukewarm support of others. Without a charge, but with unwavering eyes and steady will he is guiding us through confusion and change. He is setting up a humane order in the midst of ruthless, self-seeking, reckless greed and economic anxiety. He is using all the powers at his command to compel the selfish few to play the game of business fairly. Never again, he says, shall we permit unsocial conditions in the United States which have heretofore allowed the maldistribution of wealth and power by a small minority.
After a year of anxious toil and earnest, but sometimes bitter discussion, in which more than once it seemed as if his projects were on the point of breaking up, he has inaugurated a colossal work of reconstruction which will affect the whole future of the nation. Whatever may be the ultimate outcome of his labors, one thing is certain, our eyes have been opened to the made decade of 1919-1929 which brought about the present depression; and lives there one American who does not consider this one of the greatest blessings that ever came to our people?
In spite of the high-wrought intensity of feeling that has from time to time been displayed, the President has kept his equanimity, and large outlook. His dauntless spirit has won for him the admiration of the world. Many wonder whether he can overcome the fearful odds that confront him, but nobody doubts his sincerity and altruism.
John Fiske tells us in his account of the struggle for American independence which dragged through four months of a scorching Philadelphia summer that the scene was ended by a characteristic bit of pleasantry by Franklin. On the back of the President's quant black arm-chair there was a half sun, brilliant with its gilded rays. As the meeting was about to break, and Washington arose, Franklin pointed to the chair and said:
"I have been sitting here all these weeks, wondering whether yonder sun was rising or setting, but now I know it is a rising sun."
If the people will stand firmly by President Roosevelt, the Sun of Democracy will rise anew, and "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People shall not perish from the earth."
by Helen Selsdon
Koala in a eucalyptus tree, courtesy of Harry Williamson
By Maribel Steel and Helen Selsdon
Helen Keller had an acute sense of smell. She loved being in nature and the fragrance of flowers. One scent she was particularly fond of was the fresh scent of eucalyptus leaves. "When I was in California, where the eucalyptus grows in magnificent groves, I used to stand among them with my fingers reveling, in the music of their leaves, inhaling their perfume with intense delight."
Keller wrote this in 1934 to Tilly Aston, an Australian poet, writer and teacher who was blind, and who like Keller, had a great love of nature. Over the years Keller corresponded with Aston, acknowledging "the bond between us in our love of the eucalyptus."
Aston shared with Keller an extraordinary ability to describe the sensory pleasures of the natural world.
Tilly Aston was born in 1873 and by the age of seven she had lost all her vision. In 1894, Aston founded the Victorian Association of Braille Writers, and a year later established the Association for the Advancement of the Blind. She was a prolific writer. She wrote vivid descriptions of the Australian bush surrounding her beloved gold-town of Carisbrook. Aston recalled delicious fragrances and tactile sensations of her mother's garden in her poetry and later, described her joy-filled impressions of nature, when she travelled further afield through the Australian landscape.
It is hardly surprising that Aston and Keller enjoyed a warm correspondence. Tilly sent Helen a copy of her book of poems entitled "Singable Songs." Helen was delighted and replied with cordial appreciation, "I trust you will accept my grateful thanks for the joy you have given me. It is a joy like the exquisite fragrance of the petal shower falling upon the child's hair in your poem. I cannot realise that darkness encompasses you about as a nest when your songs sparkle through my fingers in dots of light!"
Both women understood the power of the olfactory sense to instantly recall seemingly buried memories. Helen wrote, "Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived." These two women, divided by an ocean, were joined by a love of nature and uncanny ability to express their joy in words.
Today, June 27th, is Helen Keller's birthday. Let us honor the extraordinary power of all of our senses to enjoy and fully comprehend the beauty all around us. As Tilly Aston remarked, "Although we have not seen a million things, we understand quite well, we have seen something else with which we can compare new impressions; something which makes it possible for us to SEE, perhaps more vividly than many unseeing sighted people, the gifts of beauty or grandeur strewn around us."
- Tilly Aston—Australia's First Blind Teacher, Poet & Visionary
- Helen Keller: An Introduction
- Send an e-card in honor of Helen Keller's birthday!
Both photographs used with permission, © Harry Williamson
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