Laurel Jean Presents...'

Laurel Jean Presents...'
Music with a Message and a Mission

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Highlights from my Life of Music and Ministry

Monday, October 13, 2014

Continuing Education

I am pictured below with my fellow classmates from the United Methodist Heritage course offered this fall by the Charleston, SC District of the United Methodist Church. I have thoroughly enjoyed continuing my Christian education in this way, and participating in the life of the church as a Certified Lay Servant. The textbooks are available as Kindle electronic books. While the Kindle device is not really accessible to those of us who are blind, I can read Kindle books with the Kindle app on my iPhone or my computer, using the Voiceover app with its speech synthesizer or my Braille display.

I believe that one of the greatest challenges for any blind student is educating the sighted people in the classroom environment on the subjects of sensitivity and awareness. They don't know, and they don't know that they don't know until we tell them that they don't know. Sometimes, that process is a very lonely and humiliating time for any blind individual who takes on a system that is not used to being inclusive. Blind students on any level are invariably left out or singled out albeit unintentionally.

I do see progress in the church on the local level and beyond pertaining to the inclusion and empowerment of people with disabilities, and that is very refreshing.  People everywhere need to be made more aware of the different abilities of all, and I am honored to be among those whom God has chosen for that process.

Speaking of that, both Audrey and I were chosen and certified earlier this year by the United Methodist Women to serve as study leaders for the class "The Church and People With Disabilities,"  part of the UMW "Mission u" (formerly the "School of Missions." We were called last fall and began the certification process earlier this year. We had to read ten books, plus the course textbook and leader's guide. Then, we went for intensive training in Charlotte, NC where God put it on our hearts to teach the people who had been certified to teach us. After our certification process, we led the study on the South Carolina state level and were encouraged to submit our information for consideration on the national level. We are honored to have been selected to lead this study again next year on the South Carolina State Conference level.

The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Now, churches are beginning to realize that providing accommodations for people with all types of disabilities is more than just political correctness. It is our duty as members of the Body of Christ to empower one another to serve our Lord together.


Laurel with her 2014 Lay Servant Ministry UMC Heritage Class

Summer Camp

I am picctured below with summer day campers, along with Shelby and Miss Patty Smith (Director of Crane, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to children attending summer camp in the Charleston area).  Over the past five years, it has been an honor for me to present for this camp in partnership with Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc. as part of Dixie Land's "Paws 2 Educate" Initiative.

Shelby, a fellow Dixie Lander and a high school senior,  accompanied me to this camp and for one morning, had her very own class and classroom, reading to different groups of kids and talking with them. She earned the respect of everyone there, including the Director and counselors.

Each in our own venue, we gave these summer campers, ranging in age from preschool to middle school, opportunities to talk with us and ask questions about blindness. We also asked them questions about their favorite subjects in school and what they wanted to be when they grew up. At the end of the day, we were all blessed from being able to dialog with one another.

Laurel, Shelby and Miss Patty with 2014 summer day campers, Charleston, SC

Bark Camp

Below, I am with Shelby, Audrey and Audrey's guide dog Jessie as we talk with high-school age youth attending the Summer Bark Camp sponsored by the ASPCA of Charleston, SC.

It has been a joy for me to serve in the Charleston, SC community, joining forces with Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc. as part of Dixie Land's "Paws 2 Educate Initiative."

The ASPCA originally contacted the Dixie Land Guide Team to ask for a representative who could speak to Bark Campers about guide dogs. Then, we all learned that these young people had questions about more than just guide dogs. They wanted to see the technology that allows us to participate fully in the community, and they had all kinds of questions about blindness! Of course, everyone enjoys an opportunity to visit with Jessie out of harness. These young people also enjoy seeing their names in Braille, learning to be a proper sighted guide for a blind person and asking questions of Taylor, Shelby and Brianna about what it is like to be a blind student.

I thank God for every opportunity that He gives me to shine His Light. Ministry takes on all kinds of different forms, and I am honored to be able to help teach and empower young people in the community. Together, we can help make this world a better place.

Audrey, Jessie, Laurel and Shelby presenting for Bark Camp

Worship Arts Camp

The picture below was taken after the closing service of the 2014 Worship Arts Camp hosted and sponsored by Grace United Methodist Church, Charleston, SC. I was honored to serve as the piano accompanist and assist in coaching the Worship Arts Camp Youth Choir.

Shelby was able to attend and participate fully with her sighted peers. This proved to be a wonderful opportunity for her, and we were blessed by her talents and gifts.  I brailed lyrics for her so that she could sing in the camp choir, and she had a solo part in one of the songs. Her favorite part of camp was being able to participate in the drama. I Brailed the improv cards and drama worksheets that were given to the other students, and Shelby kept up very nicely. A senior in high school this year, she told me that she had never had the opportunity to explore the art of spoken drama before and that she especially enjoyed the improv classes.

At the end of the week of camp, the youth presented their very own worship service which was well attended by their families and friends. Shelby worked right alongside the rest of the youth and did a great job.

I thank God every time He grants me the opportunity to share in ministry with young people, both blind and sighted.

2014 Worship Arts Camp, Grace UMC

Play Ball!

Debbie pitching to Shelby, beep baseball outing Debbie, Shelby's mom, pitches to Shelby during our spring beep baseball outing here in Charleston, SC.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc. introduced the sport of beep baseball to Charleston as part of Dixie Land's "Keeping Families Focused" Initiative. Beep baseball requires that all but three people on the team be either blind or blindfolded. The pitcher, the catcher and the umpire are sighted. The batter strives to hit an audible beeping softball that is pitched to him/her. If the batter hits the ball, one of two bases (first or third) is activated and begins to make a loud buzzing sound. If the batter gets to the base before the fielders get to the ball, a run is scored. If the fielders get to the ball first, the batter is out.

During this first game here in Charleston, blind people of all ages got the joy of hitting a ball as it was pitched to them, completely independently, some for the first time in their lives. I thank God for the blessing of being able to support this event and share in the fun!

Fellowship in the Word

Fellowship Bible Class, Grace UMC, Charleston, SC

Here I am with the Fellowship Bible Class of Grace United Methodist Church, Charleston, SC.

I have been blessed to continue to make Talking Bibles available to many of my blind brothers and sisters throughout the country. Recently, with the help of the Fellowship Bible Class of Grace UMC here in Charleston, 3 solar powered Talking Bibles were also sent to blind people in Haiti.

My most recent Bible recipient lives in Kentucky and is preparing to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church.

My thanks to all for the financial sponsorships which have allowed me to help shine God's Light on those who live in darkness.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Remembering Zack

Zack The Guide Dog

In Memory...


Zack Gunter, November 27, 2000 -- April 11, 2014


"I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth." -- (Isaiah 42:16)


Zack the Guide Dog was born at Southeastern Guide Dog School in Palmetto, FL where he was matched with “his mom,” my friend and associate Audrey Gunter. Shortly thereafter, Zack began to forge an indelible mark on society, in general-teaching others about guide dogs and the proper etiquette necessary from the public. He helped establish and pass South Carolina's Guide Dog Protection Law ("Layla's Law"); brought several hospitals' policies regarding service dogs into ADA compliance; made hundreds of public appearances promoting public awareness while offering peer mentoring and advocacy for the blind. He raised enough money to sponsor at least 5 special puppies that would eventually be trained to serve as guide dogs.


In his short lifetime Zack traveled thousands of miles, across dozens of states always the pillar of strength and independence for his mom. Their most memorable journey together, though, was that beautiful Sunday morning-Palm Sunday, in fact- when he led his mom down that church aisle to receive and accept Christ! Since that time the two of them became licensed and ordained; anointed; received special dispensation to receive Holy Communion in an Indiana Catholic church; had their feet washed (he drank the water); received and projected the "Laying on of Hands" practice. He has visited virtually thousands in schools, hospitals, churches, businesses and assisted living facilities. Zack even took time out of his busy schedule to pen “Zack’s Tales,” a “pawdobiographical” account of his early days and his first two years of working together with his mom. Proceeds from “Zack’s Tales” continue to help Music By Laurel Jean provide talking Bibles to those whose vision loss, learning challenges or other physical impairments prevent them from reading regular print.


Laurel, Audrey and Zack witness Taylor's Baptism

Zack was truly a loyal friend of the blindness community and a friend of this ministry since we met in 2005. He was there at the Camp Lakewood Accessible Vacation Bible School for Blind Youth when Taylor accepted Christ, and witnessed Taylor’s baptism at Grace United Methodist Church in Charleston, SC. He supervised countless hours of administrative work and was always ready for a road trip to help spread the Good News about blind faith and God’s guiding Light of Salvation.


Zack taught me a lot about guide dogs. As an avid cane user, I was honored to be part of the first Southeast Region Top Dog Workshop which he and his mom founded in 2006. He was, indeed, an ambassador. He helped teach blind and sighted folks alike that cane users and guide dog users can and do serve together as positive members of the community-at-large. In his off-harness time, it was a treat to run on the beach or splash in the ocean surf with him. Zack always waited with exuberance for an opportunity to play ball, and it was a joy for me to play with him. While he never really cared much for the long, white cane, he finally avowed as how it did come in handy when the ball rolled under the furniture. Zack seemed to really enjoy music, though. In fact, whenever he was present during my rehearsal times or my Live concerts, he provided a steady accompaniment with that snore which was unmistakably Zack.


In October, 2009 Audrey fell, breaking her leg, hip and wrist. As an indefinite period of rehabilitating therapy loomed ahead of her, I knew that Zack must not lose the sharpness of his guiding skills. For several weeks thereafter, my white cane stood in the corner as I grabbed Zack’s harness each day and said, “Come on, Zack. Aunt Laurie really needs you!” I had never worked a guide dog in my life, but I must have convinced him that he was needed. He worked flawlessly for me, guiding me as we went on errands, gave presentations and, most importantly, made daily trips to visit his mom at the hospital. It was during these weeks when I learned how very gallant was the heart of this beautiful, Yellow Lab as he braced to push me away from a very large freight truck near the loading dock of the hospital. I couldn’t help laughing the first time I ever sat down at the piano with him in harness and he decided to “help” me play, lying down perfectly right across the instrument’s pedals. What a glorious cheer went up from the choir when just 21 days after her surgery, Audrey came walking into church using only a mobility cane!


Zack grew to be “a grand old man,” as his vet often referred to him. His retirement was filled with many ball games, food-snatching escapades and time spent with family. All too soon, God called Zack home to be with Him. I was with Audrey and Zack during his last day on this earth. His last steps were made from Audrey’s den into the living room, where he laid by my piano and looked my direction as if to ask me to play for him. Of course, I did and he calmed down immediately. His gasping for breath slowed down to that constant snore of his and he settled down into his mom’s arms, where he would slip away into the arms of Jesus.


So many of us are so much the better for having known and loved Zack that wonderful, whimsical, ever-loving, ever-faithful Guide Dog. He left his paw prints on our hearts, and for that we are truly grateful. Read more about Zack’s life and see more pictures of him on the Web site of Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc.

 

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Memory...

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – I Corinthians 13:1 (NIV)


Laurel and Zettie on a sunny day in Charleston, SC

I am pictured enjoying a sunny January day here in SC with my beautiful black Labrador mix, Zettie. For the past almost-twelve years, God has used her unconditional love in my life to help keep my music from being, to paraphrase the above Scripture, “just a bunch of noise.”


I can't believe that it has been almost 12 years since I went to the Champaign County Humane Society in Illinois, in search of a furbaby. When I knelt down beside Zettie to feel her powerful, regal head and stroke the velvety softness of her ears, she wrapped her big, clumsy paw around my arm and around my heart. I knew then that this precious creature and I would be partners for life. I have been blessed to watch her grow from a rollicking young pup of two-ish years into a beautiful, faithful furry family member who was nonetheless rambunctious and filled with exuberance. She has been by my side through good times and bad, always there with her playful growl, a wave of her enormous paws and a smiling wag of her bigger-than-life tail to bring things into perspective.


Zettie grew to be as her devoted vet here in Charleston often called her, “a very nice, old lady.” She loved and was loved by many two- and four-legged souls of all ages. Even as she aged, she did so with a contagious, vivacious spirit which could never be ignored.


Laurel and Zettie on a snowy day in SC

Zettie was without question a housedog. I often joked that she lived in a large climate-controlled doghouse and allowed me to live in it with her. Still, with “her person” beside her, Zettie was good for an adventure outside anytime, in all seasons (though she never particularly cared for thunder.) Just a few weeks ago, God gave us the rare treasure of a snowy day here in Charleston, SC. I was blessed to enjoy that day with my Zettie as both of us are pictured here.


Last Wednesday, March 12, as I held her close to me, Zettie crossed the “Rainbow Bridge,” passing away at home on her day bed. She romps thru Heaven now, completely free from pain and filled with that joy which was such a unique part of her truly magnanimous personality.


My Zettie was definitely not a service dog, but has been honored by Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc. with a special tribute article on their Web site. My thanks to all from across the country who have offered such a tremendous outpouring of love and support during this time. Most of all, thanks be to God for Zettie. I am so much the better for her being in my life!


"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” – Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)


”The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)

 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Serving With Grace

Laurel with Grace church Choir

Here I am pictured with the choir of Grace United Methodist Church, Charleston, SC and Grace's Music Director, Kim Harris.  I have often been blessed to collaborate on worship music with Kim and the Grace Church Choir When I am not traveling with my ministry.

When I first came to Charleston to offer mission and outreach work with and on behalf of others in the blindness community, my first priority was to find a local church home.  It is truly a joy to worship and serve with the Grace Church family!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

More 2013 pics

Pastor Linda blessing guide team

Pictured here is my friend and sister in Christ, Rev. Linda Trowbridge, pastor of Bethany Park Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Rantoul, IL. Pastor Linda joined Rev. Dave Andrus and me in officiating the Blessing of the Guides, Top Dog Savannah, 2013. It was an honor for Music By Laurel Jean to be part of yet another Top Dog, providing sound equipment and music for The Blessing, reception dinner and banquet.

Celebrate CD

Top Dog Savannah also marked the release of my latest CD “Celebrate With Laurel Jean,” to highlight my twenty-five years in music and ministry. God gave me a lot of new music for this collection, including “The Blessing of Your Love,” a tribute to the love shared between guide dogs and their handlers. This song was debuted at The Top Dog 2013 Blessing of the Guides.

Laurel with Fort Johnson Baptist Girls In Action

Here I am with some of the “Girls In Action” of Fort Johnson Baptist Church, Charleston James Island, SC. This year, Music By Laurel Jean partnered with Dixie Land Guide Dog Users, Inc. to bring a message in music with a mission to God’s kids of all ages. Many thanks to the Girls in Action and the Seniors of Fort Johnson for making all of us part of their schedules, and for their generous financial sponsorship. God’s Light keeps shining!

Cub Scouts looking at Braille

Cub Scouts in Goose Creek, SC connect the dots to the Braille code. It is always a joy for me to bring Braille literacy and awareness to the hearts and minds of young people. The Paws 2 Educate Initiative of Dixie Land Guide Dog Users helps make it possible for me to expand this outreach into the Lowcountry area of South Carolina.

Optimists and students at Student Appreciation Banquet, Washington, IA

Optimists of Washington, Iowa join Washington High School Students for the 2013 Student Appreciation Banquet. What a blessing to be asked to present dinner music and a motivational program for this event! While in the area, I also spoke to elementary students and presented for the Free Methodist churches of Ottumwa and Fairfield, Iowa.

laurel at Calvary Lutheran

Back in South Carolina, here I am beside the beautiful grand piano in the sanctuary of Calvary Lutheran Church. Thanks to all who attended my concert. Together, we raised hundreds of dollars to benefit the Friends of Bartimaeus Christian Outreach Center for the Blind, and for the purchase of Talking Bibles.

Laurel with driver Carolyn

Here I am with my friend and driver, Carolyn Binion, as we prepared for the San Jose United Methodist Church Women’s Spring Prayer Breakfast in San Jose, IL. What a blessing to see many of my sisters in Christ, and to meet new friends! This engagement was the first of many over two months spent in my home state of Illinois.

Laurel at Neoga Days Parade

I love parades, and always wanted to be in one! Here I am with members of Zion Hill United Methodist Church, as we prepared to board the church’s float in the Neoga Days Parade. The theme for the parade was “The Wild, Wild West.” Throughout the parade route, I sang “The Circuit Riding Preacher” and led folks in a medley of traditional favorite hymns.

Laurel with Gabriel and family

While in Illinois, I was also blessed to spend a day with Gabriel, one of the wonderful young people with whom God has blessed my life. Here we are with his mom Sherri and his Aunt Karen. My thanks to everyone who helped make this day of pizza, bowling, music and technology possible. People say that I mentor blind youth; however, I feel that I am the one blessed.

Grace Worship Arts Camp Drama

Back in Charleston, SC, I served as accompanist and assistant for the Grace United Methodist Church Worship Arts Camp. In this picture, Lowcountry blind youth Taylor Jones Stebbins joins the drama team in presenting their portion of a very inspiring Friday night service. It is always a blessing and a privilege to work with the folks at Grace Church. My thanks to Grace UMC for opening their doors to all members of the Body of Christ, allowing us to serve together in His ministry.

2014 promises to be another year filled with music, ministry, fellowship and blessings. Stay tuned for more posts like this one. Until next time, God bless you and keep His Song in your heart. I thank God and thank you for your ongoing prayers and support.
 

About Me

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God has blessed me with a Music Ministry that is still ongoing and growing after twenty-plus years. This includes my outreach promoting Braille Literacy in the Christian venue, and my recently-founded Children's Chaplaincy for blind youth. To make things a bit more interesting, I have also been blind since birth. I consider my blindness to be a unique gift from God, an opportunity to serve as an ambassador among blind and sighted folks of all ages, on all walks of life. To learn more about my work, from South Carolina to Central Illinois and beyond, please visit my Web site, and be sure to stay tuned to my Blog!