By Rebecca Fater
A long, hot and dusty 7,600 miles from the lush campus of Perkins School for the Blind is Mumbai, India—the very place Simone Winston found herself last February, inside Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Deafblind in the township of Vashi. There, crowded into rooms with several other Perkins travelers, she met Indian students learning tactile sign language and using braillers. She met their dedicated teachers, who worked tirelessly with their pupils.
And, most poignantly, she met their parents.
"I found that so touching and meaningful," said Winston, a mother of four and a Perkins corporator. "We all take pride in our children and are so excited to see them succeed. We all would do anything within our power to help them achieve that. And that's really what it's all about."
The five-day journey to India was the first of its kind designed to bring donors face to face with the children, parents, professionals and local organizations that their generosity, combined with Perkins' expertise and resources, supports year after year. For Winston, the trip underscored the critical need for Perkins' global initiative. But it also gave her a new appreciation for how close to home Perkins' international mission truly is.
"We all have some level of connection and compassion with everyone in the world," she said. "Because there is just so much similarity."
There was the climate. The food. The local customs. Too many obvious contrasts to count, compared to everyday life in the northeastern U.S. that made the group of 13 travelers and senior Perkins staff feel a world away. Until, that is, they walked into the classrooms at Helen Keller Institute.
"There is so much love and care and compassion in this world, and you certainly see the love and care at Perkins on campus between our teachers and the parents and the children," said Corinne Grousbeck, a Perkins trustee and mother to a Secondary Program student. "But I felt like this school was a duplication of all that love and compassion that we see. It just shows you when you have caring, loving people and motivated parents and teachers lifting up these children, they can do anything—just like we believe that these kids can do anything. It's amazing to see that as a global phenomenon."
The travelers also came face to face with individuals quite familiar with Perkins' campus thousands of miles away—graduates of Perkins' Educational Leadership Program (ELP), which offers advanced training and hands-on learning to teachers and related professionals from around the world. To date, the ELP has hosted 25 participants from India, including Sampada Shevde. She trained on the Perkins campus from 1998 to 1999 before she returned home to eventually become the director of Voice and Vision India, founded by Perkins in 2002. Since then, Voice and Vision has trained more than 600 teachers, professionals, parents and family members to provide educational services to children.
"The ELP was a huge experience in terms of giving me a lot of exposure to some of the best practices in deafblind education," Shevde said. "The opportunity to interact with a lot of experts and teachers at Perkins, and the opportunity to teach under their supervision, equipped me with a lot of skills I could (bring) back to India." The travelers witnessed many of those skills and techniques being used in classrooms before their eyes. And the ripple effects of that training, they learned, have gone well beyond the classroom to change cultural attitudes and more. "(Not only are) these folks impacting the 2,000 to 3,000 children who have multiple disabilities, they are further impacting upon policy and service delivery in general," said Dr. W. Aubrey Webson, director of Perkins International, who joined the group in India.
Perkins' history of partnership in India goes back for decades, even before the organization's global arm, Perkins International, was formally established in the late 1980s, thanks to a substantial grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation. Perkins educators immediately recognized the need in India, home to the largest number of persons who are blind in the world—about 20 percent of the world's blindness population—and began training teachers and advocating for children's right to education.
"We began primarily by working exclusively with deafblind and multi-handicap issues in developing countries, in an attempt to change and bring to the (general) population's attention the need of the most disadvantaged group among persons who are blind," said Webson. "Our programs in India have focused on building partnerships, training teachers, and working with parents and helping classrooms of children with curriculum and training."
In accordance with its philosophy, Perkins has supported and worked to build capacity of India's local organizations. February's trip brought Perkins travelers through the gates of partner Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Deafblind at Vashi and Byculla, a Perkins partner that focuses on early intervention, education, vocational training and professional development. The organization's emphasis on transition programming thoroughly impressed Winston, who recalled a group of older students putting braille on boxes of medication so that people who are blind could easily identify them.
"Everyone had focus and purpose, and they were learning real-life skills," she said. "These young adults were really being exposed to the possibility of a life with purpose and future."
Evening dinners at the hotel gave travelers additional opportunities to learn more about Perkins' work in India, with presentations from local partner Voice and Vision India and Worth Trust, an organization that employs people with disabilities to assemble Perkins Braillers® for local distribution. Travelers also accompanied service providers on home visits to local children, and became acquainted with the parents at SOBTI, the first parent group developed in India to support the families of children who are blind or have low vision with multiple disabilities.
In January, Perkins signed an agreement with National Association for the Blind (NAB) in Mumbai, formalizing an initiative that allows NAB to assist Perkins with fundraising in that country on behalf of its partner programs. The agreement paves the way for an intensified focus on India to which Perkins has committed.
"Our goal is every child must be reached, because every child can be educated," said Webson. "We want to make sure that parents feel that there is hope for their children, that families feel that, given the opportunity, their children can be served. The environment in India—the political environment, the social environment, the policy environment— in the last 10 years has changed so that now things are in a good place. The space is now well-open and very well-served by the political and social environment, and we have to fill it. And this is the moment when we think we can do that."
The moment may also be just right for India's local organizations dedicated to serving individuals who are deafblind and multiply disabled. India's corporate social responsibility act requires companies and businesses to give a percentage of their profits to the local community. February's itinerary included a President's Dinner, hosted by Perkins President Steven Rothstein and Webson, which seated heads of local corporations across the table from the heads of Perkins' local partners.
"We had the opportunity to tell our story and discuss the needs on an individual basis with corporate leaders in the local area," said C. Richard Carlson, a Perkins trustee. "Not only did they appreciate meeting us; they could learn more about the partnerships that they could develop, and see that they are certainly worthwhile. If we can double our efforts by having other people contribute to the programs, I think the results will have a multiplying effect. The results will be huge."
In the meantime, Perkins' partners are already changing the lives of thousands of children every day, from providing the building blocks for early literacy to the skills needed to hold a job and live independently.
"It's been incredibly impressive," said Tom DiBenedetto, a Perkins corporator. "I've been especially impressed with the teachers and the various other people that support them. And the dedication of all these people, and the enormous amount of patience that they possess; I have the utmost admiration for them."
DiBenedetto and his wife Linda, a former Perkins trustee, had recently visited the birthplace of Helen Keller in Florence, Ala. For him, the sights and sounds of India brought Perkins' mission full circle when he walked through the gates of Helen Keller Institute.
"To come here… has been incredibly moving for me," he said. "Seeing how this little girl in Alabama has been such an inspiration for so many people all around the world—it just shows what one person can do if they put their mind to it."
'B' is for Brailler