Maria Blackburn 0000-00-00 00:00:00
An epic bus journey across America in 1962 unlocked the potential of two dozen blind teenagers As soon as the ferry docked at Liberty Island, Linda Woodbury and her friends were off and running. It was July of 1962 and Woodbury, one of 24 Southern California teenagers visiting New York City on a 10-week crosscountry sightseeing trip, had energy to burn. After so many days of being cooped up on a bus, it felt good to be outside where she could stretch her legs and feel the grass beneath her feet. Vowing to be the first to the top, the 15-year-old Santa Ana girl raced her friends to the base of the Statue of Liberty and began bounding up the circular staircase, the hard soles of their shoes clattering against the metal steps. Round and round they went, their hands sliding along the cool polished railing. The narrow stairwell filled with shouting as they climbed the 354 steps. Just when the ascent seemed it would never end, Woodbury found herself standing at an open window inside Lady Liberty’s crown, New York City spread out 22 stories below. Boats cut through the waves of New York Harbor just offshore. In the distance the Chrysler Building glittered in the sun. Woodbury, who is blind, couldn’t see the view. Neither could her friends. They relied on the sighted adults in their group to answer their questions about what spread out before them. Until their chaperones arrived, the teens walked around the platform, taking it all in and talking excitedly about what they discovered. As Woodbury stood there with the wind blowing in her hair, she was struck by the magnitude of the experience. How fortunate she was to be on this trip, to have the opportunity to spend the summer exploring the country, surrounded by people who recognized that the blind could be independent and self-reliant. The words to her favorite Woody Guthrie song ran inside her head: “This land is your land, this land is my land; From California to the New York Island; From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters; This land was made for you and me.” “This is America,” she thought. “It belongs to everyone, sighted and blind. We get to come here because we’re free.” <b>Start the Revolution</b> Taking 24 blind teenagers on a sightseeing tour of the United States might not seem like such a major event today. In the early 1960s when Norman Kaplan, founder of the Los Angeles-based Foundation for the Junior Blind, conceived the trip, it was nothing less than revolutionary. Then, many blind children grew up sheltered, attended special schools and traveled little. Children with disabilities weren’t regularly mainstreamed into public schools. Kaplan’s philosophy was different. “I don’t know about blind children,” he liked to say. “But I do know about children.” And children, according to Kaplan, needed to take tours to learn about the country’s history. They needed to ride horses and drive bumper cars, to visit the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, meet presidents and ordinary people. With the help of minor adaptations like sighted guides, the children in his foundation needed to experience the world outside of their own. It was critical not just to their present, but to their future. Blind children would soon grow up to be blind adults and Kaplan wanted to make sure they could lead productive lives, find meaningful work and be independent. The 10,000-mile journey was a way to help set them on that path. “Norm got it that some of the kids were in for rough adult years,” says Mike Cole, retired administrator of the California Orientation Center for the Blind who was a 16- year-old junior at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles when he went on the trip. “But he believed people could shape their own destinies. He knew blind people who had become self-sufficient, people who were good at Coping in a rough and competitive world, so he knew blindness was not the issue. He saw his role as encouraging us, and I think he knew he might be one of the only sighted adults in our lives that encouraged us with such feeling.” Kaplan knew he couldn’t do it alone. So he called on the Lions for help. Some 72 Lions clubs from across the country pitched in to make the trip a reality. The Lions raised money so that the teens didn’t have to pay a dime for their journey. They planned outings in their towns, and opened their homes to provide food and lodging to their road-weary visitors. The trip, christened BY LIONS (Blind Youths Looking Into Our Nation’s Scenes), lasted just 68 days. But its impact lasted a lifetime. Today some 48 years later as small business owners, administrators of social service agencies, teachers, homeowners, parents and grandparents, the participants look back on their cross-country trip and credit it with making them believe that they could take risks, be successful, be themselves. “What the trip me taught me most of all, really, was to never give up,” says Woodbury, who holds a master’s degree in speech communications and whose career has included serving as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, founding two businesses and administering programs to people with disabilities. “There’s always a way. It’s not can you do something, it’s how can you do something.” <b>In the Spotlight</b> From the beginning, the kids knew the trip was going to be special, although they weren’t quite sure what to expect. Norman Kaplan’s wife, Nadia, planned the itinerary, which took them to 32 states and featured 52 planned stops including the White House. The trip wasn’t just about the teens seeing the country; it was also about the country seeing them. “At that time technology hadn’t made the kind of employment possible that’s possible today for blind people,” Woodbury explains. “Blind people were kind of in the closet. There were sometimes embarrassed to be out in the street.” The foundation, now called Junior Blind of America, served hundreds of blind children through their Saturday programs, Friday night teen dances and summer sleep away camp, Camp Bloomfield. There was no way all of them could go on the trip. The 12 boys and 12 girls were handpicked for their maturity, positive attitudes and ability to get around well on their own. There was Linda, the adventurer; Loretta, the prankster who loved to dance; and Dennis, the soft-spoken piano player. There was Greg the mimic, who could do a credible imitation of Norman Kaplan, Betsy, the youngest in the group, who packed her first pair of high heels for the trip, and Mike, who was fearless. “We were A pretty feisty group,” says Cole, who was used to traveling the city of Los Angeles on his own with his guide dog, P. S. “We believed we represented new ways of thinking and behaving about blind people. I think we had an attitude about being in charge of our lives.” It was an attitude that had long been fostered by their families as well as the Kaplans. Despite the fact that mainstreaming people with disabilities in public schools was not yet the national model, most of the teens on the trip attended regular public schools. At home the children learned to ride bikes, bait fishing hooks, cook and do everything their sighted siblings and neighbors did. At Junior Blind events they socialized with other blind kids from the region and made friends. “We were expected to just be like other kids,” Woodbury says. “And when you’re expected to be like that you just do it.” Norman Kaplan stayed to run Camp Bloomfield, and Nadia Kaplan served as the trip’s director and brought along their daughters, Fawn and Penny. In addition, there were six counselors, all young adults who had worked as counselors at the camp and knew the kids, as well as a bus driver and two USC film students who photographed the trip. On June 24, the teens bid their families goodbye, boarded the bus and set out on their journey. Betsy Whitney, then 12, felt butterflies in her stomach as the bus pulled away from the curb outside the foundation’s Wiltshire Boulevard headquarters. “I knew it was going to be an adventure,” she says. “And I was always up for an adventure.” <b>On the Road</b> The bus, donated by employees of North American Aviation, was hardly a cushy ride. There was no air conditioning and no bathroom. The bus broke down almost weekly. And every square inch of space was crammed with people, luggage and equipment, like the three typewriters teens would use to write letters home and thank-you notes to the Lions who hosted them. “The bus wasn’t a school bus, although it felt like one,” says Lew Sitzer, then a 19- year-old counselor who regularly stretched out on the bus floor in the aisle to get some sleep. A typical travel day would find the group on the bus for 10 to 12 hours at a time. The teens talked, caught up on sleep and wrote letters. Sometimes Kaplan or one of the counselors would get on the PA system and describe the scenery outside the windows. Often they would sing to pass the time, harmonizing on rock and roll, folk and gospel tunes. Ray Charles was a hero and “I Like It Like That” was one of their favorite songs. “Get blind folks together and they’re apt to sing, often wonderfully,” Cole says. On tour days they woke up early in the morning to eat breakfast and be on their way. Every stop was different. They smelled sulfur in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, stuck their hands in a vat of peanut butter on a tour of the Hershey Chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and explored the contours of Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” with their hands at an East Coast art museum. They Trekked through Tom Sawyer’s cave in Hannibal, Missouri, visited a slew of Civil War graveyards and toured the Library of Congress. “Every day I knew there was going to be something exciting,” says Woodbury, who remembers experiences as varied as winning a cow milking contest at a Texas ranch and meeting with U.S. senators and representatives in a fancy Capitol Hill dining room. “I would wake up every morning with an excited feeling in my stomach and an air of expectation that something was going to happen.” The group didn’t just meet one U.S. president, they met two. What Whitney recalls most clearly about the visit to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, wasn’t shaking the hand of the nation’s 33rd president, but the weather on that blistering hot July 4th day. “I was wearing a navy blue suit, a white blouse, nylons and high heels,” she says. “I was so tired and so hot that I fell asleep standing up.” A visit to the White House and meeting with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden was chronicled by newspapers and TV stations across the country. Loretta Moore of San Diego, then 14, nearly fainted from excitement. “When President Kennedy walked over to me and took my hand I thought I was going to lose it,” she says. “My knees were just weak. Here was the president of the United States holding my hand. How many people ever get to do that?” Despite all of the fun they were having, traveling nonstop for 10 weeks was demanding. The teens were responsible for being on time, packing and keeping track of all of their belongings, doing their own laundry, and carrying their own bags. Kaplan was loving, but firm. “It’s nice to be nice,” she reminded them again and again. She expected her charges to behave, to act polite and be respectful. “Nadia made it very clear to us what the rules were but she always had our dignity at the forefront,” Woodbury says. The Lions helped ease the difficulty of keeping to such a busy schedule and being away from home. Wherever the bus stopped for the night, whether it was in Williams, Arizona, or Williamsburg, Virginia, local Lions greeted the teens and escorted them to fried chicken picnic suppers and dances they had organized. At the end of the night, the Lions would show them to the hotels, college dorms and private homes they had arranged for their overnight stay. They were a warm, welcoming presence. “We knew when we would get to a place that we were just going to love those Lions. There was no question about it. We could not wait to meet them,” says Woodbury, who still stays in touch with the wife of a Lion that she met on the trip. Whitney recalls spending the night at the home of a Lion in a small Nebraska town and waking up in the morning to discover that his wife had washed, dried and ironed every article of clothing in her suitcase, even though they were already clean. “They were so nice to me,” she says. “They acted like they were honored that I was staying with them and they really felt that way. Their kindness was astonishing.” Many of the trip’s most memorable moments sprang from events that weren’t on the group’s detailed itinerary. There were thunderstorms in Ohio that brought a pouring rain and crashing thunder that the group of California kids had never before experienced. They staged epic pillow fights and pulled goofy pranks on one other, like stealing the clothes someone had laid out on their bed for the next day. “We were really comfortable with each other,” says Whitney. “We felt safe with each other. We cared for each other.” The event that galvanized the group occurred onethird of the way through the trip in Bluefield, West Virginia. It was almost dusk when the bus arrived in town and the teens, who were scheduled to tour a coal mine and receive the keys to the city the following day, were hungry and eager to get off the bus. When Nadia Kaplan returned to the bus from checking in at their hotel, she told the teens the news: due to local segregation laws, Greg, Loretta and Essie, who are African American, would have to stay apart from the group that night in a hotel that allowed people of color. The teens were astonished. Some of the younger ones burst into tears. Although the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be passed for another two years, they were largely unaware that segregation was still going on in the United States. These were the kids that they had laughed with, cried with, shared meals with and spent thousands of hours with. These kids were their friends. It wasn’t fair they were being singled out because of the color of their skin. “We saw no color and it wasn’t just because of our eyes,” Woodbury says. “The whole idea of racial inequality was foreign to us. We tried so hard to believe ourselves as equal. If blacks weren’t equal then what about blind people?” Kaplan let the teens decide what to do. They determined that as guests of the Lions club the most gracious way to proceed was to not make a fuss. “I was unhappy with the decision but felt there were few options,” says Sitzer. “Sometimes more is accomplished with diplomacy than confrontation.” But when the group disembarked from the bus only to discover that the hotel wouldn’t even let the three African- American teens eat in the same dining room as the group, they took a stand. Everyone trooped down to the basement to eat dinner together. “It was all of us or none of us,” Woodbury says. “If I remember correctly even the mayor of the town came down to the basement and ate with us. It was an amazing day. All eyes were opened.” <b>Turning Point</b> The travelers returned home in late August, exhausted and exhilarated. In the years that followed they moved away from home, attended college, settled into careers and started families of their own. As they made their way in a sighted world and their independence blossomed, they continued to be inspired by the trip, the friends they made and the experiences they shared. “I always had a lot of freedom growing up but I was very shy,” says Woodbury, now 63 and living in Albany, California, where she works as administrator for the state orientation center for the blind. “After that trip it was like having a bunch of people who were like me who were jumping out there with me into society. It gave me a sense of wholeness and boldness.” They knew they had been places and done things that many sighted Americans had not. The knowledge changed them, says Whitney, the founder of a successful Braille translation services company in Hawaii. “I’m much more accepting and more understanding of other people because of all the experiences I had on the trip,” she says, happily adding that today she lives in the most diverse county in the United States. “I really did grow up.” And for Sitzer and Cole, the trip afforded them the opportunity to fully realize the importance of creating change. Both men were active in the civil rights movement in college and went on to become teachers. Sitzer taught high school history for years and has been an active volunteer in his Northern California community. Cole, who lives in Berkeley, California, became an advocate and activist for people with disabilities with a particular focus on working with the blind in the fields of access, orientation and rehabilitation. “Everything in your life contributes to who you are,” says Cole. “But I think that it’s fair to say I developed a certain desire to make a difference because of the trip.” About 10 years ago, Cole, Woodbury, Moore and a few others from the BY LIONS trip got together for a reunion and spent a few hours exchanging memories and catching up on each other’s lives. The closeness they felt to one another was there just as it had been dozens of years before. “So many of us made great strides in different ways,” says Moore, who is 62 and has worked as an instructor at the San Diego Center for the Blind for more than 25 years. “Isn’t it neat to make friendships with people that continue to inspire you?”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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