Generations of generosity

Throughout Perkins' history, remarkable people have stepped forward to help children who are blind achieve their dreams

Charles Woodcock shakes hands with a smiling Ray Charles and gives him a braille plaque

Different people support Perkins School for the Blind in different ways. Perkins Director Charles Woodcock presents Ray Charles with a braille plaque, after Charles performed a benefit concert in 1982 at Perkins’ Watertown, Massachusetts campus.

November 23, 2015

For generations Perkins School for the Blind has relied on the time, talent and generosity of dedicated individuals and organizations to help students who are blind reach their full potential. In the spirit of the season, here are a few of their stories.

As a young medical student in the early 1820s, John Dix Fisher traveled to Paris for his studies. While there he visited The National Institution for Blind Youth – the world’s first school for the blind. Moved by what he saw, Fisher was determined to start a similar school in his hometown of Boston. On a cold February day in 1829, Dr. Fisher brought together a group of prominent Bostonians to incorporate the New England Asylum for the Blind. The Massachusetts legislature unanimously approved the incorporation and appropriated $6,000 a year to cover tuition for 20 students. Three years later, the United States’ first chartered school for the blind opened in Boston.

Using rooms in his father’s Boston home, the school’s first director, Samuel Gridley Howe, began teaching a handful of students in 1832. Within a year it was clear the school needed more space. Col. Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a well-known China trade merchant and founding Trustee, offered to loan his Pearl Street mansion, provided the school could raise $50,000 in matching funds. Groups of women from Boston, Salem, Marblehead and Newburyport set to work hosting competing charity bazaars. Soon more than enough funds were raised to meet Col. Perkins’ challenge. Six years later, as attendance continued to grow, Col. Perkins allowed the school to sell his mansion and use the proceeds to purchase an old hotel in South Boston. The school was renamed the Perkins Institute, and later Perkins School for the Blind, in his honor.

In one of his first acts as director, Michael Anagnos set up an endowment for the school’s printing department – renamed the Howe Memorial Press in honor of Perkins’ first director. A ferocious fundraiser with a gift for working with people, Anagnos went on to raise $100,000 for the printing department. Anagnos next embarked on a successful campaign to establish a kindergarten program. According to Anna Gardner Fish, “Through seven long years Mr. Anagnos used voice and pen and every other means of persuasion to induce friends and philanthropists to share with him the satisfactions of benefiting the little blind children.” Donations poured in from around the country, mostly in small amounts, with many from children. Thanks to their generosity, the country’s first kindergarten for the blind opened its doors in 1887.

A little over a century later, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation provided Perkins with a $15.4 million grant over five years to provide educational services to children who are blind with additional disabilities in the developing world. The Hilton-Perkins Program, later renamed Perkins International, was the first large-scale effort of its kind. Since 1989, Perkins International has worked with local partners to bring education, literacy and vocational training to hundreds of thousands of children around the world.

This December, Perkins will be part of a call to action that will help make history. On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, we will join thousands of organizations to celebrate #GivingTuesday – a global day of giving that harnesses the collective philanthropic power of individuals, communities and organizations. We hope you have been inspired by these stories of generosity and invite you to encourage friends and family to give back this #GivingTuesday. Your gift can be doubled as part of our Holiday Challenge Match – so you’ll help twice as many children who are blind.

This article includes research and language from the Perkins History Museum and the book “Perkins School for the Blind” by Kimberly French. For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter.

Read more about: Fundraisers, Perkins History