BVA Maps Future in Sparks 

by Christina Hitchcock

“Our thanks go out to so many of those who serve us but most of all to you, our members, who have made the sacrifice and effort to be here at this 69th National Convention,” said BVA National President Mark Cornell as he brought the four-day gathering to an official close at the annual Awards Banquet.

The figurative lowering of the gavel at the banquet ended an intense week of education and training, business sessions, and informative speeches and presentations. Although opportunities also arose for socializing, recreation, and even relaxation, they were rare for those on whose services and dedication so many of the attendees depended.

The 69th Convention attracted 345 total registrants, 148 of whom were blinded veterans. The week began with registrations and check-ins August 16-17. It also included preliminary activities of participants in Operation Peer Support (OPS), an initiative now nine years strong that seeks to connect veterans who have recently lost their sight with those who experienced much the same during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or due to an age-related condition.

Other highlights of the week included the traditional BVA Auxiliary Silent Auction, caucus sessions within the various BVA districts, and the unveiling of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s new U.S. Currency Reader.

Lively Reception Kicks Off Busy Week

Mark Cornell sneaks behind Ruth Klein and her daughter, Sharon Neyme, during celebration of Ruth’s 91st birthday.

Mark Cornell sneaks behind Ruth Klein and her daughter, Sharon Neyme, during celebration of Ruth’s 91st birthday.

Mark and other members of the Board of Directors welcomed attendees to the convention in a reception line at the annual President’s Reception on the evening of August 18.

Jenine Stanley, Consumer Relations Coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s Vet Dogs, represented America’s Vet Dogs Executive Director Wells Jones in also welcoming convention attendees. Paul Mimms, whose guide dog Brook-lyn came to him through America’s Vet Dogs, thanked Jenine on behalf of BVA for America’s Vet Dogs’ sponsorship of the President’s Reception. It was the sixth consecutive year of the sponsorship.

U.S. Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV-2), whose district covers the Reno-Sparks area, also welcomed veterans and their families to his home turf (see photo on page 11).

The throng of more than 325 also sang Happy Birthday to World War II veteran Ruth Klein, who celebrated her 91st birthday on the very day of the convention’s opening. A cake, balloons, and other festive mementos were all ordered up by her loyal friend, Jim Justesen, of the Minnesota Regional Group. Jim had entertained the thought of the celebration for the better part of a year before making it all happen.

“It was great that we could recognize Ruthie in this way for her magnificent service and the amazing story that she has,” Jim said later.

Ruth enlisted during World War II 72 years ago to become one of the U.S. Navy’s first WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). When an officer at boot camp learned that she was a sharpshooter who had hunted pheasants back home with her father in Valley Springs, South Dakota, Ruth was sent to gunnery school in Pensacola, Florida, then on to teach the art of shooting at the North Island Navy Air Station on San Diego Bay.

Ruth reportedly has an old black-and-white photo from a scrapbook that reveals an attractive young woman with dark curls showing a new recruit how to operate an anti-aircraft machine gun.

Margarine, Volunteers Sparkle

“I don’t have even a few seconds during BVA conventions to sit down anywhere and just think,” exclaimed the universally appreciated and longtime Convention Volunteer Coordinator Margarine Beaman with her always recognizable and friendly chuckle. “I lose touch with the outside world when I am doing this—I haven’t even turned on the TV this week!”

Margarine Beaman, left, and Christina Hitchcock take quick breather as convention week comes to a close at annual Awards Banquet.

Margarine Beaman, left, and Christina Hitchcock take quick breather as convention week comes to a close at annual Awards Banquet.

Despite her attempts to be in many places at once wherever and whenever she was needed, Margarine once again in 2014 stood ready and willing to respond with a smile and helping hand to every expressed need as she coordinated volunteer efforts.

Even if Margarine was unable to make something happen by herself, she called on and delegated a heavy workload to a reliable cadre of volunteers from throughout the Reno community and even a few from much further away, including Lew Allert from Spokane, Washington, who volunteered at the 68th Convention last year and, according to Margarine, may actually end up making his way to the 70th National Convention!

At the Thursday morning Closing Business Session, Tom Miller moved that Lindsay Ruais be designated as the “Sweetheart of BVA” for the current year. The motion was seconded and unanimously approved by convention delegates and other attendees.

Technology Session And TAVVI

For the first time ever, a component of the convention consisted of BVA member-lead training sessions that provided instruction on how to use an iPhone or iPad.

According to Tim Hornik, the Technology Association for Veterans with Visual Impairments (TAVVI), a.k.a. the new BVA technology working group, developed and compiled a series of handouts and guides for various apps and functions on iPhones and iPads that the group distributed at the convention.

The following link allows computer users to download each of the items distributed:

Tim also said that the hands-on iOS training session received overwhelmingly positive reviews from those in attendance. Some 70 veterans participated and received valuable information and tips. Assistance was provided by BRC officials, exhibitors, and BVA members.

“It is the mission of the TAVVI to continue providing assistance and resources to visually impaired peers on various technologies for the purpose of enhancing their lives,” said Tim. “Since our establishment earlier this year, the TAVVI has successfully accomplished a number of missions.”

Tim enumerated the successfully completed missions as follows:

  • Provided feedback to BVA on the usability of VA’s website for a Congressional hearing.
  • Developed a web usability evaluation tool in keeping with Section 508 guidelines.
  • Conducted a formalized test on the accessibility of ten VA webpages.
  • Testified before Congress on 508 Compliance based on the results of the above survey.
  • Proposed and developed the documents and structure of the iOS demonstration at the convention.
  • Executed the iOS hands-on demonstration

Tim explained that TAVVI will continue leading the way with materials and programs to increase knowledge and resources related to technology, and that blind rehabilitation specialists will create the foundation for veterans to adopt technology.

“On behalf of the Technology Association for Veterans with Visual Impairments, I thank everyone who participated in the session for their support and assistance,” he said.

Annual Forum Offers Information, Insights

The annual BVA Forum on August 20 featured presentations by the local Toastmasters Chapter, Long Beach Blind Rehabilitation Center Low-Vision Optometrist Dr. Sally Dang, VA Blind Rehabilitation Service Director Gale Watson, and Executive Director of the University of Utah Moran Eye Center for Translational Medicine Dr. Gregory Hageman.

Forum topics matching the aforementioned presenters: were: 1) What Is Toastmasters and How Can It Help Me? 2) Low Vision and Traumatic Brain Injury, 3) VA Blind Rehabilitation Update, and 4) New Insights into the Causes of Age-Related Macular Degeneration.

Master of Many Trades Addresses Carroll Luncheon

“I’ve failed many times at just about everything I’ve tried but what I’ve done is to go back at it and try again,” said Bill Wedekind, Vietnam veteran and the only known double-amputee potter in the world.

Speaking at the Father Thomas J. Carroll Memorial Luncheon, Bill, currently a resident of San Antonio, Texas, and a life member of BVA, elaborated on the life-altering events that began with an explosion as he was inspecting a defensive perimeter while on duty in Vietnam on May 25, 1968.

He then mentioned four principles that have helped him become successful after having first failed: 1) If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right (borrowed from Henry Ford), 2) If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter (minimizing the importance and impact of a disability), 3) Learn to think outside the box, and 4) Heed the dirty four-letter word, which is W-O-R-K.

Bill was born in Manhattan, Kansas, the first of five brothers. He was inspired to follow the family tradition and join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967, expecting it to be a lifelong career path. Never arriving at a certainty or remembrance of what happened next, Bill nevertheless lost both eyes, one ear, and both hands in the explosion.

Bill’s grandmother, Myrtle Fichon, suggested pottery as a possible career for him and introduced him to the basics of the craft before he studied under accomplished potters at Kansas State University. He later received an advanced degree license as a ham radio operator and took up the building of race cars as a hobby. He also uses power tools fearlessly whenever he needs to build another shelf to hold his pottery.

Bill is a skilled computer programmer. He has given pottery demonstrations and motivational speeches to a wide variety of groups, including students of all ages, a minister’s group, inmates at correctional facilities, and potters at numerous shows, guilds, and seminars.

In 1976, the Disabled American Veterans honored Bill as the Arkansas Disabled Vet of the Year. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Combat V in 1968.

The luncheon was also highlighted by presentation of BVA Certificates of Appreciation to VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) employees Lillie Kennedy of the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center and G.W. Stilwell of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. The two were honored for their recent exemplary service to blinded veterans and their families.

Mystery Auction Adds Excitement

Convention attendees were also treated to a “mystery auction” during the evening of August 20. Local resident John Brownell, International Affairs Specialist with the Nevada National Guard in nearby Carson City, did the auctioneer calling honors.

The auction merchandise was hidden in large department store bags at the front of the meeting room. Bidders had to essentially guess the value of the item based on the shape and size of the bag. Proceeds of the event, which totaled some $3,000, will go toward covering BVA’s general operating expenses, particularly in the area of member education.

Operation Peer Support Completes Ninth Year

Benefiting from talented guides, Adam Rowland enjoys kayaking challenge. Standing behind Adam’s kayak is BVA member Lonnie Bedwell, first-ever blind person to forge the Grand Canyon in a kayak.

Benefiting from talented guides, Adam Rowland enjoys kayaking challenge. Standing behind Adam’s kayak is BVA member Lonnie Bedwell, first-ever blind person to forge the Grand Canyon in a kayak.

OPS participants from the United States, accompanied by a family member or friend, introduced themselves at a reception and dinner on August 16. They boarded a bus the next morning for Lake Tahoe, where they enjoyed a day of kayaking courtesy of Team River Runner (TRR).

BVA member Tina Lemus, a Sparks resident and TRR official herself, organized the kayaking event. That evening the participants welcomed seven additional OPS arrivals from Blind Veterans UK at still another reception and dinner. The seven Brits included four veterans who had participated in Project Gemini in May, two previous participants in OPS, and a recreational therapist.

Secretary Offers Keynote, Visits with OPS Attendees

“Let me thank BVA for your long-time support of VA—for your work at our medical centers, at our Blind Rehabilitation Centers, on the Prosthetics Advisory Committee, for your collaboration with VHA on the evolution of VISTA 6, and for your help in preparing our blind rehab professionals to serve you better,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald after just two weeks on the job.
 Prior to national convention Opening Business Session and speech by Secretary McDonald, Dr. Lucille Beck, VA Chief Consultant in the Office of Rehabilitation Services and Office of Patient Care Services, with National Director of VA Blind Rehabilitation Service Gale Watson.

Prior to national convention Opening Business Session and speech by Secretary McDonald, Dr. Lucille Beck, VA Chief Consultant in the Office of Rehabilitation Services and Office of Patient Care Services, with National Director of VA Blind Rehabilitation Service Gale Watson.

McDonald’s August 19 remarks at the Nugget set the tone and direction for the four days of business meetings, workshops, exhibitions, media interviews, social events, awards presentations, and the luncheon honoring Blinded Veterans Association legend Father Thomas J. Carroll—all of which have become significant components of BVA annual conventions over a nearly seven-decade span of history.

“Your devotion to veterans isn’t lost on me, and I want to assure you that your contributions to VA reform discussions have been of great help to me,” McDonald continued.

Sparks Mayor Geno Martini followed Secretary McDonald with a welcome to his city and some encouragement to “go shopping and spend money!” A full text of Secretary McDonald’s speech is available on the VA website

Exhibit Hall Attracts Crowd

The convention also brought some 66 exhibitors housed in nearly 40 booths. They featured innovative instruments such as audible currency readers, talking computers, barcode scanners, bioptic telescopes used as eyeglasses, video magnifiers, hand-held libraries of audible information, mobility aids for independent living, audible health monitoring devices such as medical alarms and two-way emergency communicators, and portable Global Positioning System devices.

Several exhibitors also addressed interested convention attendees in break-out sessions outside their booths.

Bylaws and Resolutions Results, Thursday Afternoon Sessions

Although none of the proposed bylaw amendments passed on the convention floor at the morning Closing Business Session, members and delegates voted on August 21 to change the wording in one of the already existing bylaws. Each of the 21 proposed resolutions was approved, 14 as a block due to previous consideration and seven individually as new proposals.

A “Lunch and Learn” presentation by Vanda Pharmaceuticals on the topic “Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder” (Non-24) followed the Closing Business Session.

Convention attendees then visited afternoon sessions presented by Field Service Program National Director Ed Eckroth and his staff, followed by Glenn Minney.

Christina Hitchcock directed a session with regional group officers and other interested members. The topic was successful development of a BVA regional group.

Officers Elected And Re-elected

Through a motion by National Secretary Joe Parker, delegates re-elected, by unanimous voice vote, Mark Cornell to continue as BVA National President, Dale Stamper as National Vice President, Joe Parker as National Secretary, and Paul Mimms as National Treasurer.

Both Pete Davis and Dr. Tom Zampieri, Directors of Districts 3 and 6, respectively, ran unopposed in special elections this past summer. The election in District 6 would have been a regularly scheduled election this year in any event. Newly elected Director of District 5 Paul Kaminsky, Florida Regional Group.

Newly elected Director of District 5 Paul Kaminsky, Florida Regional Group.

Paul Kaminsky of Middleburg, Florida, and the Florida Regional Group, was elected as the new Director of District 5. Paul has served previously as the BVA National Treasurer, four years as a Florida Regional Group district director, two years as the group’s vice president, and three years as president.

A 30-year Navy veteran, Paul was born in Johnson City, New York. He moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1960 and joined the Navy in 1965 after graduating from Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Florida.

Joe Burns of New Orleans, Louisiana, has been reappointed as an Honorary Member of the BVA Board of Directors. Former Director of the Vision Center of Excellence Dr. Donald Gagliano, M.D., MHA, of National Harbor, Maryland, was also reappointed to the same position.

Longtime National Chaplain Neftali Sanchez of Grand Terrace, California, agreed to reinstatement as Acting National Chaplain for one year. Daniel Wallace of Union, Missouri, was named by the Board of Directors earlier this year as the National Sergeant-at-Arms. He was reappointed to the position at the post-convention meeting of the Board of Directors.

Rosenbaum Locates Resources, Seeks Additional Assistance

Past President of 33 years of the Carroll Center for the Blind, Rachel Rosenbaum, stopped in at this year’s convention in hopes of speaking with BVA members and friends who were personally acquainted with Father Thomas J. Carroll, pioneer in the field of blind rehabilitation and BVA’s legendary first National Chaplain from 1945 to 1971.

The Carroll Center, named for Father Carroll and established by him in 1936, provides rehabilitation, technology training, and educational support to more than 2,000 blind children and adults annually.

Rachel is conducting research for a biography on Father Carroll and is especially desirous of locating World War II veterans that interacted with him during BVA’s formative years. She spoke with a number of BVA members during her three-day stay but hopes to locate still more. Please contact her at with any information or perspectives on Father Carroll.

Awards Banquet Recognitions

Mark Cornell presented Gold Gavel Award to Michelle Tuengel, president of the Washington State Regional Group, at 69th National Convention.

Mark Cornell presented Gold Gavel Award to Michelle Tuengel, president of the Washington State Regional Group, at 69th National Convention.

The annual Awards Banquet is considered the final opportunity at each BVA national gathering to enjoy food and drink while mingling with new and old friends. The event this year began with an hour-long reception and concluded with expressions of appreciation for dedication and sacrifice by BVA members and their regional groups, caregivers, Board members and staff, and others who provided support and service to veterans with vision loss throughout the past year.

BVA National Treasurer Paul Mimms received BVA’s highest honor, the Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement, at the banquet. The Irving Diener Award was presented to Charles Register of the Southern California Regional Group for outstanding service to BVA while Charles Davis of the Greater Houston Regional Group was honored with the David L. Schnair Award for distinguished voluntary service in general.

Throughout his more than 30 years of living with visual impairments, Paul Mimms has been a role model to whom his fellow veterans could look for leadership, service, and an example of the personal and professional traits that bring success in life. He has lived largely as if there were no barriers imposed by sight limitations.

Paul’s professional service has included various pioneering efforts that have radically changed a number of practices and procedures within VA BRS. He has made similar contributions to BVA with the same positive results. For example, as the first Computer Access Training (CATs) instructor at the West Palm Beach BRC, Paul instituted the first VA sanctioned program that would instruct veterans on electronic mail and Internet access. The program would soon become a core component of CATs. This singular pursuit enabled many veterans to adopt what has become the premier method of communicating both professionally and socially.

When a Florida VIST Coordinator position opened up in November 2004, Paul sought and was awarded the job, a position he held until his retirement in 2009. He has served the greater blind and disabled community through numerous board positions, projects, and committees, including service in every possible regional group position with the Florida and Missouri Groups and now as National Treasurer. His efforts brought the Gold Gavel Award to Missouri last year.

With a “can do” approach to regular tasks and special challenges during the past three and a half years, Charles Register has been the driving force in building a strong BVA presence in Orange County, California, and at the Charles R. Soltes, Jr. VA BRC in Long Beach.

As Chairperson of the Orange County Chapter of the Southern California Regional Group, Charles has encouraged BVA members to attend meetings and to run for offices within the chapter and group. He appointed a chapter member to represent it at group meetings, another member as a representative to the VA Voluntary Service meetings, still another member as a Community Liaison, and a fourth member as a Liaison to the BRC. He has encouraged the building of bridges between BVA and community groups such as the Braille Institute and the California Council for the Blind.

Staffing and working the BVA volunteer office at the BRC, Charles has enthusiastically signed up a large number of new BVA members. He has maintained member interest in monthly meetings by contacting and arranging for speakers to address relevant topics. He calls members frequently to check on their health and well-being. He also goes out of his way to thank members for a job well done and recognize their accomplishments at chapter meetings. He established “The Slightly Used Blind Equipment Exchange” out of the volunteer office and has initiated spring, summer, and fall barbecues with BRC inpatients and staff to encourage new and renewed fellowship and friendships.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Charles served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Prior to losing his sight, he worked in air traffic control with the Federal Aviation Administration for 31 years.

Charles Davis has volunteered more than 4,650 hours over a nine-year time period at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston in support of blinded veterans and the staff of the Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation (VISOR) Program.

Charles is well known at the medical center for his good cheer, smile, and dependability. He is frequently seen delivering mail, running errands to the Director’s office and other locations, informing fellow blinded veterans regarding their VA benefits, escorting veterans from VISOR to the BVA Field Service office for benefits assistance, or visiting hospitalized blinded veterans.

As vice president of the Greater Houston Regional Group for more than 14 years, Charles has coordinated and set up the local regional group meetings, arranged transportation for all BVA social outings, coordinated the annual fishing trip out of Galveston, and helped plan and put on the annual BVA Christmas party.

He and his wife, Lou, a retired educator, are longtime Houston residents.

Three regional groups also received recognition at the final event. The Washington State Regional Group earned the coveted Gold Gavel for having added the largest number of new members to their group. The Silver Gavel, presented to the group with the highest percentage of new members, went to the Wisconsin Regional Group. The Bronze Gavel, introduced only last year for the group signing up the largest number of new members previously designated as nonmembers in BVA’s database, was awarded to the Florida Regional Group for the second consecutive year.

Special national award recognitions were given to Dr. George Stocking for his more than four decades of service on the BVA National Board of Directors and Robert Keller for outstanding and lengthy voluntary service in the BVA San Diego, California, volunteer office.

Make Plans for Milestone 70th!

Delegates and other convention attendees at the Closing Business Session approved Louisville, Kentucky, as the city to host the Association’s 70th National Convention.

Dates for the 2015 gathering and the host hotel, one of two being considered at press time, will be announced in the near future.