by Hayley Agers
When I began this season of my life seven years ago, I had no idea what I was doing or all I would walk away with. The season I am referring to is my time serving as chair of the Washington Council of the Blind (WCB) Families Committee. What qualified me for this position? Back then, I thought of myself as a former occupational therapist who had worked with children with varying disabilities, and may have some knowledge about what working with blind children would be like. I also had the experience of being a blind child myself, and now raising two amazing children of my own. Because of those experiences, I thought I might be an OK choice for the chair position and was willing to take on the challenge, with big plans and big ideas. I had no clue what this would entail, or how much it would grow, both in size and for me in my own personal journey.
Now, seven years later, I want to share where we began and where I end my time, as I step down as chair at the end of 2023. First, let me say that none of what has been accomplished would have been possible without an amazing group of committee members and the partnerships that we have formed over the years. At our first youth track, held as part of our WCB state convention, we had about nine families attending. We were thrilled beyond words. Some of those youth are now in college, pursuing medical degrees, and married with children of their own. We try to keep in touch with as many of them as possible, at times reaching out to them to come back and serve as mentors or leaders at our events. With each year, our youth track grew, and the connections we made with the loving, hope-filled families has been priceless. This year, I am proud to announce that we had 29 youth attend our state convention and take part in the youth sessions. Many of them were accompanied by their parents and sighted siblings, bringing our numbers to over 70.
The theme this year was “The Secrets to Success,” and throughout the weekend, both youth and parents learned about the importance of good communication as one of those secrets. Our youth sessions included topics like what to do when it all falls apart, and redefining success. Parent-oriented sessions included a small group geared toward dads and the important role they play in communicating expectations and showing up in a compassionate, encouraging way, and hosting a spa night for the moms to say thank you and please take care of you first, so you are better able to be supportive when your child needs you. Our sessions are often led by youth mentors, and those are a huge success because these are young people all speaking the same language, which happens to be Gen Z, and I have little understanding of most of what they speak.
Our meals together are very intentional in the way we conduct them and the content we cover. They are an opportunity to bring others in from the community who offer various services, such as library services, scholarships offered by WCB, opportunities to get involved in committees like our award-winning WCB Newsline publication, services the Washington State School for the Blind offers, and more. During these meals, we challenge the youth to step outside of their comfort zones by practicing mobility skills, serving themselves at a buffet, and advocating for themselves when they have a need. It’s a beautiful thing to observe a child who arrives on Friday sticking close by their parent’s side and looking to that parent to assist them with many tasks, transform into a child who, even after the first session, is excited about whether they will be able to come back the following year. Long-lasting friendships are formed, with many karaoke songs performed together, lots of laughing and sometimes crying. These youth see there is a community of both blind adults and youth who see and accept them as they are, and meet them wherever they are on this journey. This community will be there to hug them, give them resources, equip them with skills, and be their biggest cheerleaders when they struggle to believe in themselves.
It’s not about comparing our stories, although meeting somebody who gets you and with whom you can share commonalities is nice. It’s not about focusing on limitations, but instead learning to appreciate your individual strengths. It’s not about doing life perfect, but always making progress.
We have been blessed to partner with our state agency, the Washington Department of Services for the Blind, who are able to help with funding certain portions of the program, providing staff members who already work with these families in some capacity, and helping us choose a program that addresses the most common concerns that both parents and youth have. We show up with a space to connect these families with individuals who may have been walking this walk for many years, help plan topics that we know will inspire people to think outside of the box, and give hope to parents who may have questions about what life for their blind or low-vision child may look like. This partnership is invaluable and has allowed us to grow exponentially
I write this article to encourage each of you to also think outside of the box. How can you bring in more youth to your state conventions? What will it take and who will need to be involved to start planning some fun, informative events around your local chapters? And how do we get these youth more engaged and excited about attending a national American Council of the Blind convention?