Happy 2018! Our journey into a new year could be likened to the adventure of a lady--who happens to be blind--out in the middle of a rather deep lake (said to be inhabited by alligators) in a paddleboat with a sighted guide who is directionally dyslexic. It is a journey of faith, and yes, that really did happen to me last October as I enjoyed a "Pizza In The Park" outing with my extended family of "Dixie Land Guide Dog Users." There I was in this boat with Terrie--a sighted guide and friend--who had to close her eyes whenever we needed to turn because she actually is directionally dyslexic. To make things even more interesting, if you want to steer to the right in a paddleboat, you have to turn the rudder to the left and vice versa. So, Terrie closed her eyes to tell me which way to turn, and I turned the rudder while compensating for the reversal of directions. Now, that's what you call a journey of faith, and proof that God really does have a sense of humor! Guess what? We survived the trip just fine, and shared a lot of laughter along the way.
This adventure was just one of many 2017 highlights for me. We're well into another year and, if I don't get this published soon, my "New Year's Notes" will turn into Valentines! Before anymore time lapses, here's a look back at my 2017.
Guide Dog Users of Florida hosted Top Dog-2017 in Orlando this past January, and I was among the South Carolina affiliate members of Dixie Land Guide Dog Users who provided administrative and promotional assistance as needed in preparation for this event. Just a few short months later, I was collaborating on promotional writing for the National convention of Guide Dog Users, Inc., introducing the imaginary antics of those renowned, "rovering reporters, Fred Floppears and Colleen Curleytail." Although I personally choose not to be a guide dog user, I do have a tremendous respect and empathy for the awesome partnership between blind handlers and their guide dogs.
At Top Dog Orlando, Dixie Landers were asked to participate in "The Blessing of the Guides," one of the highlights of Top Dog since that first workshop was held in 2006. While I stayed home to work on a writing project, several of our Dixie Land members and their guides caught the early train to Orlando, FL for the weekend's convention. As our President--my BFF and a dear sister in Christ--Audrey Gunter assisted with "The Blessing," she was reminded of just how much her fellow blind handlers need the opportunity to celebrate the lives of their guide dogs. The majority of guide dog users are on a limited income. When a guide dog retires and it is time for the handler to receive a new dog, most cannot keep their previous guide with them. There is a desperate need for blessing and closure among the worldwide community of guide dog users. Audrey once again shared these concerns with me. I, too, have been praying about this need for quite some time and was inspired to produce an audio church service. The service, titled simply "The Blessing" would speak to the hearts of guide dog users, past, present and future guide dogs, and all who love them.
"The Blessing" was delivered to an international audience via the Internet. For those who do not have the Internet, CD copies have been made available upon request. We've received responses from guide dog users throughout the US and Canada, and prayer requests came in from around the globe in remembrance of countless faithful guides who have crossed over "Rainbow Bridge." This presentation was highlighted on the Email lists of the national organization, Guide Dog Users, Inc., and was also featured on the Internet radio program, "Spotlight On Assistance Dogs." We have been asked to consider producing "The Blessing" on a regular basis. For a link to "The Blessing" with show notes, Email the Dixie Land Guide Team at firstname.lastname@example.org with "The Blessing" in the subject line.
Another tremendous honor for me in 2017 was being commissioned by the "Heart and Soul" choir in Decatur, IL to write the song "I'm So Glad." Choir members, each having a unique set of challenges, shared with me their ideas for this song, which promotes inclusion among the Body of Christ, the church.
In late January, I was called to the hills of North Carolina to provide music for the funeral service of Tommy Shelley, a dear friend of the blindness community and of this ministry. Standing on that mountain in that little church graveyard, closing the service with the singing of The Lord's Prayer, was beyond words an unforgettable experience for me. Our prayers continue for Tommy's wife Ethel and the rest of this dear family.
In the spring, I traveled to St. Simon's Island, Georgia, where I served as the main presenter and music leader for the 2017 Spiritual Growth Retreat of the United Methodist Women Charleston District. Here I am pictured with some of my sisters from Grace United Methodist Church who attended the event.
My thanks to Retreat Director Angela Pickney-Hall, pictured here with me, and the rest of the Charleston District UMW for making me part of this event.
Back in Charleston, another spring highlight was an afternoon cruise on "The Spirit of Carolina," one of several tall ships which came here for a weekend festival. These ships are replicas of those which actually sailed in the 1800's. The festival afforded an opportunity for a blind person to be seen in a venue that is often considered not to be accessible to people with disabilities. I even got to help hoist the sails!
Once again, I was blessed to assist with coordination and participation in presenting for area summer day camps, collaborating with others from the Charleston area's blindness community. Together, we educate sighted children--ages seven thru fifteen--on the subjects of Braille, proper etiquette when meeting a blind person--with or without a service dog--, accessible technology and much more.
Most rewarding for me personally is our work with summer day campers at the East Side Community Center.
There is always a lot of excitement, and hugs for everyone!
We continue to be available to serve as peer mentors for our blind brothers and sisters, and those who are in the process of losing their sight. Sometimes we meet in person, but most of our mentoring takes place via phone or Internet. We consider it an honor and a gift to hear Sofia's confidence growing as she speaks, or to witness Catherine learning to solve many of her own problems. I personally find that I am most often the one who is mentored, and I thank God for every opportunity that He gives me to shine His Light in this way.
This past summer, another very special angel in my life entered the gates of her Heavenly home. Millie Kaiser was the person who scheduled my very first professional Christian music engagement back in 1988. The above picture was taken at one of the last church concerts of mine which Millie attended in her hometown of Springfield, IL. She was the first person to tell me, "Laurel, you have a very special gift and God is going to use you to bless a lot of people." Her words, spoken at the secular community event where Millie and I first met, introduced God's calling of ministry into my heart and began our friendship of nearly 30 years on this earth. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to sign Millie's guestbook and even send some of her favorite music selections for her memorial service, while continuing with the ministry in which she believed so strongly.
August, 2017 in Charleston provided one of our nation's best views of the total solar eclipse which, yes, even this blind lady was able to enjoy right in my front yard.
August also marked the five-year anniversary of the Friends of Bartimaeus Christian Outreach for the Blind here in Charleston. This outreach is hosted by Calvary Lutheran Church and is one of over fifty of its kind throughout the United States. Friends of Bartimaeus offers a monthly gathering, usually on the last Friday of the month. People who are blind come from all around the Charleston metro area to enjoy a nutritious, delicious hot meal, devotionals, music and fellowship in a safe, non-threatening environment. At the end of each meeting, guests in need are even given a bag of groceries to take home. As one of the founders of this ministry, it is always a blessing for me to assist with music, leadership and prayer support for the people of all ages and their families who are touched by this outreach. Last year, we even assisted with catering the event while our regular sighted cooks were out of the country on a mission trip.
In the fall, we here in Charleston battened down the hatches to prepare for three unwelcome visitors. Fortunately for us, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria had been downgraded to tropical storms by the time they reached Charleston. Most of us (myself included) stayed put and hunkered down in place to wait out the storms. Damage in my immediate neighborhood was minimal and we never lost power, though it flickered occasionally. Others in the greater metro area of Charleston and throughout the state were not so fortunate. The tropical storms were unnerving, with a lot of wind and rain, transformers popping and mature tree limbs snapping as if they were little twigs. Thru it all, we were kept informed by realtime radio/television coverage and alerts from some of the top meteorologists in the nation who happen to live here in Charleston. We haven't forgotten and still pray for those who have suffered such tremendous loss in the paths of these storms.
Another highlight of my year was my opportunity to take a course in Internet broadcasting or podcasting with Jonathan Mosen, a renowned broadcaster and podcaster from New Zealand who also happens to be totally blind. The course took place over four weeks via Internet conference and consisted entirely of blind people on all walks of life. I learned so much about the advancements in recording and broadcasting technology accessible to the blindness community and got to interact with a lot of really interesting people.
I continue to assist in providing Email technical support for the mailing list of the Not Alone Internet Ministry. This ministry reaches out from St. Louis, MO with a weekly reflection podcast hosted by Pastor Dave Andrus, and a Bible study podcast in which Pastor Dave is joined by co-host Cecilia Lee. Both Pastor Dave and Cecilia are totally blind. These Christian programs offered from a blindness perspective are truly a breath of fresh air, and I enjoy helping out with this ministry.
Here is the most recent Christmas display on the gate outside my house here in Charleston. Thanks, Audrey for helping with this! Who says blind folks can't enjoy Christmas lights?
In December, I provided music ministry for the Christmas parties of the Friends of Bartimaeus and also for the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired of South Carolina. Many guests in attendance, say that these celebrations served as their only means of socializing and celebrating the season with friends. Audrey turned 70 this December and I was truly honored to be the musician and emcee for her birthday party. In lieu of gifts, Audrey asked her friends to bring nonperishable food items to help restock the Friends of Bartimaeus grocery pantry. Thanks to an overwhelming turnout of support, those pantry shelves were completely filled by the truckload of groceries delivered to Calvary Lutheran Church.
Every day, we pray that God will put us where He needs us, and use us where He puts us. On Christmas Eve Eve, Sonny and I returned from our morning walk to find a rather large box on our front porch. I brought the box inside and scanned it with an app on my phone which uses the phone's camera to recognize printed text. The box was addressed to someone a couple of blocks away. I suppose that I could've called the shipping carrier and asked them to retrieve the box, but this was most likely someone's Christmas present. I let Sonny rest in his crate, grabbed my cane, tucked the box awkwardly under my arm, programmed the street address into my phone's GPS and walked the package to the home of its rightful owner. As it turned out, the box contained a Christmas gift that a very nice lady named Maureen had purchased for her son. She was elated to have her gift and I was glad that I could help. Sometimes it's nice just to be able to do something that any neighbor should do for another.
My heartfelt thanks to all whose prayers and support helped make 2017 a truly blessed and fulfilling year for me, one adventure after the other!
Stay tuned for more posts like this one. Until next time, God bless you and keep His Song in your heart!
© 2018 by Laurel Jean Walden