Community Outreach Challenge, by Tristen Breitenfeldt

(Editor's Note: Tristen Breitenfeldt is a member of ACB of Oregon's Metro PDX chapter.)
As members of an ever-changing minority group, many people who experience blindness seek that important sense of community and fellowship which defines us as humans.  We also believe in our right to advocate for inclusion and accessibility in society.  It was on these fundamental building blocks that the American Council of the Blind was founded.  Throughout the years since its inception, the ACB has grown and changed to accommodate its members, while always remembering the fundamental principles of its mission. The importance of community outreach, however, is frequently under-addressed.
Community outreach is an essential component of any service-based organization.  It is through community outreach that member recruiting occurs. Through outreach we are able to serve and assist the people we represent.  This generally does not happen within our membership meeting halls; it is out amongst the people where we can do the most good.  To this end, the Metro PDX chapter of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) of Oregon implemented a shopping experience designed to introduce and teach important life skills to youth who are blind in the Portland area.
Christmas is a time for giving and sharing, but most people get so wrapped up in the commercialism of the holiday, they forget the true meaning of the season.  To celebrate Christmas this year, the Metro PDX chapter of the ACB of Oregon hosted its first annual Winter Independence Shopping Experience (WISE) on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 at the Pioneer Place Mall in downtown Portland.
The WISE Project was an overwhelming success!  We assisted six blind/low-vision children between the ages of 6 and 15 with their holiday shopping.  By doing so, we gave each participant the opportunity to experience the joy of giving this holiday season.  The kids were each given $75 and a blind mentor from our chapter to shop with.  The goal of the project was for each child to independently find and purchase one or two gifts for their family as well as a gift they could donate to Toys for Tots.  The mentor's responsibility was to ensure the safety of the child they assisted.  Mentors assisted the children with creating shopping lists, locating stores in the mall, learning how to ask for help, and offering suggestions for money management strategies.  We were fortunate to have enough sighted volunteers that every shopping team, consisting of a blind mentor and child, were able to be accompanied by a sighted assistant.
Every participant said that they were very happy to have this opportunity to learn how to shop, manage money, and make new friends!  Some of the kids even said that this was their first time doing things such as riding the escalator, making purchases in a store, making a shopping list, and yes, even meeting Santa.  That's right, we were very fortunate that Santa Claus made a surprise visit to the suite where the kids were learning to wrap the Christmas gifts they had purchased.  So, they gave their unwrapped Toys for Tots donation to Santa.  One girl even suggested giving Santa Claus a chocolate chip cookie, which he said was delicious!
The Pioneer Place Mall was very generous in donating a suite for gathering and gift-wrapping supplies, as well as making sure Santa visited us.  We also greatly appreciated the Bridge City Café's donation of delicious cookies, which everyone, including Santa, enjoyed.
One shopping mentor shared her experience afterward, "I adored my little mentee. We had such a great time picking out his gifts.  He had those salespeople wrapped around his little finger. In the last store we visited he was $5 short for the gift he wanted to buy his mother.  I asked the sales clerk if there might be another store with a similar product that he might be able to afford. Her response was to tell me that she thought they had an extra $10 coupon laying around somewhere.  She left us and came back a few minutes later with one all taped together. It was nice to see such Christmas spirit."
After the event, one participant said, "Being able to buy presents for people for the first time" was the best part of the experience.
Whether organizing a shopping trip for blind youth or hosting a self-defense class for blind adults, the idea is the same — reaching out to others in the community is fun and beneficial for everybody.  Community outreach and educational projects teach important skills as well as provide valuable exposure for the hosting organization.  These experiences often result in increased membership and provide information for planning further projects.  So, what can your organization do to help the community you serve?