October 28, 2023 Presidential Report

Jessica B. Beecham, President, NFB of Colorado

In the Spirit of this Science Themed Convention, I asked Chat GPT to Generate a story about a community persevering and thriving after the loss of a great leader. After just this prompt, I got a very fitting response that I wanted share with you as I begin my 2023 Presidential Report. Listen to the story and draw your own comparisons and contrasts as we revisit the trials and triumphs of our past year in the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado.

"In a small, tight-knit village nestled deep within a lush forest, a remarkable leader named Elara had guided her people for many years. She was not just a leader but also a friend, mentor, and the heart of the community. Under her wise guidance, the village had flourished, and its residents had enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous life.

One fateful day, tragedy struck as Elara fell gravely ill. The entire village rallied around her, providing care and support, but despite their best efforts, she passed away. The loss was profound, leaving a void in the hearts of everyone who had known her.

Grief and sadness engulfed the village, but amidst the mourning, a determination began to emerge. Elara had taught her people many valuable lessons, one of which was the importance of resilience and unity. She had instilled in them the belief that they could overcome any challenge as a community.

With heavy hearts, the villagers gathered to honor Elara's memory. They decided to carry forward her legacy by continuing the work she had started. Elara had been known for her love of nature and her efforts to protect the forest, so the villagers began by organizing regular tree-planting ceremonies and wildlife preservation initiatives.

Leadership within the village evolved, with a council of elders and experienced individuals taking on the roles that Elara had once held. While they couldn't replace her entirely, they carried her spirit and wisdom in their hearts, guiding the village toward prosperity and harmony. The lessons Elara had imparted remained a guiding light, and her memory lived on in every tree they planted, every child they educated, and every challenge they overcame as a united community.

The villagers proved that the legacy of a great leader doesn't end with their passing. Instead, it lives on through the people they inspired and the values they instilled."

While he was not with us in person in 2022, Scott LaBarre had a larger-than-life presence at our National Federation of the Blind of Colorado State Convention. From his hospital bed, between being treated, poked, and prodded, he found time to send at least three 20 plus minute audio clips to “squeeze” into the agenda, send encouraging text messages, chat on the phone, and join us live on Zoom as much as he could. I am so glad that he took the time to share his deep intellect, energy, wisdom, and love in what would, unbeknownst to the rest of us, be his final National Federation of the Blind of Colorado State Convention.

In early December, Scott ended a courageous, and hard-fought battle with cancer. His untimely death left us heart broken, gutted, and unsure how to chart a path forward that did not include our chief legal counsel for the National Federation of the Blind, world treaty negotiator, powerful thought leader, game changing civil rights attorney, staunch advisor, wise mentor, and beloved friend Scott LaBarre. Scott, in short, we miss you terribly!

The blows continued to rain down on the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado with the losses of dear friends and leaders like Tracy Jones. Jon Deden, Karen Samuelson and most recently, the legendary Dr. Dots, Tom Anderson.

In his 1983 Banquet address, The Other Half of Inertia, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan says: “We have learned the truth of the other half of inertia: things in motion tend to remain in motion—and it is as hard to stop something which is moving as it is to start something which is not. We are moving! We are going with a mighty sweep, straight for equality and first-class status—and no force on earth can slow us down or turn us back or change our direction.”

Despite our profound losses, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado upheld our brand promise. The promise we make to ourselves and the promise we make to one another that together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality. We are an organization in motion, and we will not be stopped. In fact, you might say that despite the heavy burdens of the last year, we are moving full STEAM ahead.

We kicked off 2023 by hosting a memorial to honor the life of Scott LaBarre. The service was attended by over three hundred individuals in person and several hundred on zoom. Attendees joined us from around the globe. Leaders from the National Federation of the Blind, World Blind Union, American Bar Association, World Intellectual Property Organization, Colorado General Assembly, friends, and family spoke to the tremendous impact that Scott made on countless lives throughout the world. We threw the kind of party that Scott would have loved to attend with plenty of glasses of gas to go around. 

The memorial helped us to begin our healing process and focus on moving forward in a way that would make Scott proud. In February, we gathered in the Colorado State Capitol where we Scott was honored on the Senate floor and our members advocated for accessible prescriptions, continued funding of the NFB-NEWSLINE program, and state funding for the Business Enterprise Program. We did receive NFB-NEWSLINE funding, Project Literacy, funding for 2023. We planted the seeds to pave the way to success in our pursuit of accessible prescription legislation as well as funding for the Business Enterprise Program in the 2024 Congressional session.

Ten Coloradoans put boots to pavement in Washington, D.C. where we met with our representatives to advocate for the needs of the blind across the nation. We educated our representatives about the lack of accessible medical devices, pushed for a tax rebate to offset the cost of excessively expensive yet vitally necessary assistive technology, talked about the need for Social Security Disability reform so that individuals who are blind have a way to return to work that makes real financial sense, and continued our pursuit toward website and mobile application accessibility.

Under the dynamic leadership of Ellie White and with the support of Scholarship Committee Co-Chairs Cody Bair and Michelle Chacon, our Colorado Association of Blind Students held a Scholarship Seminar to market the NFB of Colorado Scholarship program, educate blind students about additional financial resources, and offer tools to help blind students navigate college. This year, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado is awarding two Scholarships to dynamic scholars Dan Hlavinka and Christopher Collins, who spoke during yesterday’s luncheon.

Our NFBCO Board of Directors has decided to put a new spin on the NFBCO Scholarship Program. I am pleased to announce the Scott C. LaBarre Scholarship program. In the upcoming year, we plan to offer the Scott C. LaBarre Scholarship opportunity to students from both Colorado and Wyoming. Scott came to the National Federation of the Blind through the scholarship program, served on the National scholarship program for many years, and had a passion for mentoring young leaders. I hope you agree that creating a bigger, bolder, and more robust scholarship program in Scott’s honor is a fitting tribute to our long-time leader, mentor, and friend.

We kicked off the month of May by participating in The Tank, an event organized by the South Metro Chamber of commerce designed as a competition in which nonprofit members of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce were invited to showcase an idea for an innovative community program in front of a panel of Sharks or in this case, Angel Fish Investors. Businesses from the chamber as well as members from the audience are invited to donate funds toward the presenting not for profit entities. Nate Hecker and Andrea Fowler of the Mile High chapter put together a proposal to bring innovative STEM programming to youth in Colorado. Just Thursday, we used funds raised through The Tank to put on a STEM seminar for more than seventy participants including thirteen students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, nine students from the Denver Metro area, and several students and staff of the Colorado Center for the Blind. The seminar was led by two blind scientists, Ashley Neybert and Charis Glather, both former National Federation of the Blind of Colorado Scholarship recipients.

In early May, our Colorado Association of Guide Dog Users under the leadership of President Kevan Worley held a highly successful training and networking seminar. There were forty-one guide dogs and handlers at the seminar and over eighty individuals in attendance. Attendees gained knowledge about procuring a guide dog, guide dog programs, caring for a guide dog, and were inspired by a keynote address, World Trade Center Survivor and long-time guide dog handler Michael Hingson.

On August 17th we gathered on the 16th street mall to celebrate Gary Van Dorn Day as he received Minoru Yasui award. An honor given to those who extraordinary volunteers who have given extraordinary service to their community with little to no recognition. For over a decade, Gary has served as our affiliate transit expert representing the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado at Regional Transit District meetings, consulting on projects such as the 16th street mall project, the Colfax 15 L Route Improvement Project, and more. He has faithfully kept us up to date regarding RTD planned additions and cuts and has worked tirelessly to help individuals from across the state develop a plan and passion for improving transit in our communities. We are grateful for the tremendous work of Gary Van Dorn and were honored to celebrate his special day.

Our History is online, accessible, and searchable! Thanks to the efforts of Peggy Chong, Julie Hunter, and their team, we have made even more tremendous strides in the Preserving Our History Project. Peggy will be giving an update later, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to extend a huge Thank you to Peggy, Julie, and the rest of their team.

In September we hosted our 6th annual 6 Dot Dash 5k and Beer Tasting. Nearly 150 runners and guides towed the start line with many others serving as volunteers and spectators. We had a huge event expo, a bounce house, food trucks, puppies to kiss, live music, and delicious beer from Great Divide Brewery and Breckenridge Brewery. Thanks to our organizing team of Maureen Nietfeld, Cody Bair, Kevan Worley, Josie Mills, Erin Daley, Lisa Bonderson, and Chaz Davis as well as support from many other key volunteers, we were able to raise over $20,000 to support the literacy programs of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. This year, we actually earned more money from our members and supporters who set up and utilized fundraising pages than we did through event registration. Whether you fundraised, donated, ran, walked, volunteered, or raised a toast during the dash, thank you for helping to make the 6th Annual 6 Dot Dash a success.

Leading up the 6 Dot Dash, we launched National Federation of the Blind of Colorado Braille Ale in partnership with our friends at Great Divide Brewery. We look ford to an ongoing and robust partnership moving forward.

In memory of our dear friend and longtime leader Jon Deden, we continued the tradition of the Spero Winery Fundraiser. We gathered, raised several toasts, gave away some great door prizes, and enjoyed a delicious wine and cheese spread. Sadly, while at Speero, we found out that next year will likely be our last year to participate in this fundraising program as the caterer is not interested in catering any more after age eighty. I think she deserves a break but after next year, we will surely miss this NFBCO tradition! Thanks, Michelle Chacon, for the many years of work you and Jon put into cultivating this fundraiser and to Lisa Bonderson for your efforts in carrying on the tradition.

I want to give a shout out to our chapters for some of the great work they have been doing over the last year to build membership and serve our community. We have started some cool new traditions. The Wild West Chapter has begun the tradition for gathering for a meal the weekend after Thanksgiving to build membership, spend time with one another, and reach out to friends we have not seen in a while. The Mile High Chapter raised over $2,000 through their first annual chili cook off and live auction where ten participants entered chili to be judged by the audience. The Wild West Chapter has also moved its meetings to the local library, which has allowed them to reduce their annual dues from $10.00 to $5.00. The Pueblo Chapter has worked diligently to get accessible prescriptions through Script Talk in Pueblo, and they have been successful in getting them into a King Soopers in Pueblo. The Colorado Springs Chapter has begun a project bases meet up group which has already resulted in local representation at a few events as well as greater civic engagement. The Denver Chapter hosted a huge Christmas party, Halloween get together, and summer picnic. Members also walked proudly with their white canes in the Western Welcome Week parade. Parents of Blind Children stayed busy partnering with our Colorado Center for the Blind Fast program so that blind parents would have the opportunity to support parents of blind kids and all the kids could have a GREAT time. The parents of blind children loaded up the kiddos to see the Christmas lights and every kiddo got a stocking full of treats and reindeer ears. The Parents also enjoyed activities including an outing in the park, a trip to the pumpkin patch, and a day at the lake. They are gearing up for an active 2024 beginning with a FAST Saturday fire safety day at the Littleton fire station. Our Boulder Chapter has incorporated monthly meet ups where they get together for some food and great conversation. Many of our chapters are helping to send members to National Convention, State Convention, and encouraging members to support activities and events of their neighbor chapters.

The crown jewel of our affiliate, our flagship program, the “secret sauce” to having such a vibrant affiliate full of competent and capable blind people is the Colorado Center for the Blind. Our Colorado Center for the Blind is the Federation Philosophy in action.

We are so very fortunate to have a home base, a gathering place for event, and a program that shines such a bright light on the power of the National Federation of the Blind. Julie will be giving a report on the Colorado Center for the blind coming up shortly and I do not want to spoil our update except to say that our Colorado Center for the blind is not only doing great work today, but is undergoing a rigorous strategic planning process to make sure that we stay on the cutting edge of blindness rehabilitation and training as we move into the future. Let’s give it up for our Colorado Center for the Blind, and its director, own Vice President Julie Deden.

Our project literacy program has continued to make a tremendous impact throughout the state of Colorado. Currently, 1630 Coloradoans are subscribed to the NFB-NEWSLINE service. Last year subscribers read 425,886 minutes’ worth of content, made 17,063 calls to the service, accessed 93,385 pieces of material online, received 315,027 publications via email delivery and accessed 102,778 pieces of content from Colorado newspapers. Coloradoans have access to the Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette, Colorado Springs Independent, Associated Press Colorado, Ft Collins Coloradoan, and the Grand Junction Sentinel.

Our Blind Coloradoan Blog continues to be the envy of other state affiliates. We have a distribution list of over 1,000 readers including members, educators, administrators, allies, and corporate partners. This past year, four articles from the Blind Coloradoan were published in the Braille Monitor. The Braille Monitor is the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind. We are always looking for stories and pictures from our members. Your story is important, and we would love to share your challenges and victories in our blog. Thank you Kevan Worley and to everyone on the Project Literacy Team.

Many of you have looked at the auction list and noticed that the much-coveted Colorado Springs Dream Vacation package is nowhere to be seen. This is because we are turning it into an exclusive raffle. Each ticket will sell for $50, and we will cap our sales at two hundred tickets. This means that an auction item which has historically helped us to raise $2,000 in the auction will allow us to raise up to $10,000. In order to make this raffle a huge success we will need your help so stay tuned for more details.

As we move into the upcoming year, we plan to expand our project literacy program to include greater outreach across the state of Colorado, partnership programs with the Colorado Talking Book Library and other entities to spread awareness of resources and introduce services, introductory training and support to assist blind people with accessing communication and literacy related assistive technology, development of more National Federation of the Blind Chapters and networks of support, and a support line to assist blind Coloradoans with introductory training and resource needs. This kind of programing takes funding. This year, we applied for a grant from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to help us get started and we are planning to ask the Colorado legislature to increase our NFB-NEWSLINE Funding to $250,000 annually to support additional staff and resources so that we can make this dream a reality.

As we launch into Project Literacy 2.0, we have challenged our chapters and divisions to come up with great ideas to build membership across the state of Colorado. Chapters and Divisions will present their ideas on Sunday Morning and the chapter or division with the best idea will receive $500 in funding to help that idea come to fruition. Although there will only be one “official winner,” knowing this team, I am fully confident I will be reporting on the success of several of these ideas during next year’s presidential report.

Just Like Elara’s village, we are taking the moving forward honoring the work, lessons, values, and teachings of our past great leaders and building on their ideas and dreams to create a better, stronger, more accessible, and opportunity rich Colorado for blind people.

The work that we do is noted across the nation, In Colorado we are leaders, and we help to set the tone for our National Movement. There is a reason that Colorado is represented on the tenBroek board, the American Action Fund for Blind Children Adults Board, the Museum of the Blind Peoples Movement Advisory and Fundraising committees, the National Association of Guide Dog Users Board of Directors, the DeafBlind Division board of directors, the National Scholarship Committee, and our National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors. Leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado bring ideas, energy, creativity, heart, and hard work that truly do transform audacious and bold dreams into reality. We are part of an affiliate that truly does our part to make the world a better place for blind people.

I want to pause for just a moment and to internalize our year. It has not been an easy one, but we it has been a successful one. We have not accomplished everything, but we have accomplished many things and we have laid a solid groundwork for continued and sustained growth and innovation. This would not be possible without each of you so give yourself a round of applause. Obviously, I cannot thank everyone but there are a few people who must be recognized. Thanks to Lisa Bonderson who does so much behind the scenes to make sure that convention, affiliate events, fundraisers, and other activities come off without a hitch. We love you and appreciate you more than you know. The NFBCO Board of Directors, our chapter presidents, Julie Deden and the management team at the Colorado Center for the Blind for taking such great care to manage and grow our flagship program, Kevan Worley and the Project Literacy Team, Curtis Chong and Peggy Chong, the hardest working retired folks I know who do so very much to support our affiliate. We really do have a tremendous team.  

Thank you for trusting me to lead this tremendous effort. This summer, I was honored to be elected to serve as a member of our National Federation of the Blind board of directors, Were it not for the stellar reputation and extraordinary work of our affiliate, I am certain that opportunity would have gone to someone else. I am proud to lend a Colorado voice to our national efforts and am here to hear your ideas of how we can make our movement more powerful and impactful on both a local and National level.

I am filled with hope, energy, and love by participating in the National Federation of the Blind because my expectations are raised, my contributions make a difference to me and to others, and I can celebrate the realization of my dreams with my Federation Family.