City of Festivals Imparts Hospitality, Warmth
During a hectic convention schedule of meetings and other activities Dale Stamper and his wife, Cora, took a break to see the Milwaukee Brewers in action at Miller Park on August 25.
Surrounded by the intricate, glitz, and glamor reminiscent of the 1920s, and highlighted by art deco-style paintings on the ceiling, detailed in gold leaf and complemented by extravagant chandeliers, attendees of the BVA 71st National Convention at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center Hotel and Convention Center took in a rousing Opening Session, business meetings, educational offerings, an unprecedented number of exhibitors. They also enjoyed social events that took them to a renowned museum, a state-of-the-art baseball stadium, and a Midwestern casino.
Excluding the exhibitors, convention attendees consisted of 123 blinded veterans, 54 guests, and 10 staff members. They were greeted with Midwestern hospitality and friendliness. Major convention events were covered by local CBS-58 Television and the Thursday edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The week of stimulating activities, debates, and instruction officially was officially adjourned with Dale Stamper’s lowering of the gavel at the end of the Friday evening Awards Banquet.
Milwaukee Milestone for Longtime BVA Chaplain
Neftali Sanchez, serving this year as Acting National Chaplain in Chaplain Charles Brooks’ absence, shared a significant piece of BVA history and personal nostalgia with fellow convention attendees.
“I came to this same hotel property in 1956 to attend my first ever BVA convention at 22 years of age and to meet Father Thomas Carroll for the first time,” he said on the Convention floor at the conclusion of the Closing Business Session. “Unbelievably, here I am still 60 years later as a longtime BVA member and after having been honored to serve as the Chaplain for so many years.”
“Tali” was the BVA National Chaplain for 32 years (1979-2011).
He made a similar statement before the entire convention body the day previous day at the Father Carroll Luncheon prior to offering the event’s invocation.
The BVA 11th National Convention was held August 1-4, 1956 at the Hotel Schroeder, now a remodeled and much larger Hilton Milwaukee City Center Hotel.
Every “T” Crossed On VIPER Ride
Tailgunner Kenny Adams, Greater Houston Regional Group, receives pre-VIPER Ride briefing from his Pilot for the day, Steve Karolek of Dellafield, Wisconsin. The two had just been filmed and interviewed for a local television news segment.
Although it was not an official convention activity, a first-of-its-kind motorcycle ride was the talk of the Hilton for the entire the week as a dozen or so attendees took off from the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center on motorcycles early in the morning of August 21.
The event was also organized by Father Carroll Luncheon speaker and BVA of Wisconsin Regional Group President John Carter, a resident of the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.
The inaugural VIPER Ride, VIPER signifying “Visually Impaired Patriots Experiencing the Road,” arrived in the small town of East Troy at midday for a pit stop and barbecue lunch that was hosted by the town and surrounding areas--and which included a musical duo of singers with their guitars. It was also a community event that invited the general public to come and purchase lunch with the veterans, who were served all the food they could eat by Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and their leaders.
The contingency of 48 Tailgunners (blinded veteran riders), their Pilots (drivers), and other volunteers, medical personnel, and news reporters returned to Milwaukee in the late afternoon.
The roundtrip ride took the group 110 miles on major highways and side roads. Also accompanying them were 10 law enforcement officers, eight on motorcycles and two in squad cars, to stop traffic throughout the experience.
“This was an amazing display of community and law enforcement support that I had never observed before,” said John.
Two officers would block one intersection while the others would head up to subsequent intersections. When all of the motorcycles had passed one intersection they would head up to the next available problem intersection.”
Although he was slow to take credit for the success of the event, preferring to heap praise on the committee he had organized to carry it out, John made certain that every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed throughout the eight months of planning.
Plans are well underway and now confirmed for a second annual Milwaukee VIPER Ride on August 20, 2017 with a slightly different trip route.
Exhibit Hall Sets New Record
BVA Arkansas Regional Group member James Lea, right, and wife Lavesta with Mac Villareal of Aira in the Exhibit Hall. Aira was a major sponsor of the convention.
More than 50 exhibitors, including 12 companies completely new to the BVA convention, visited with attendees of both the BVA convention and the VA Blind Rehabilitation Service conference as they checked out new products and technology. The group assembled in the Exhibit Hall was the largest ever at a BVA National Convention.
New vendors included the National Beep Baseball Association, Aira, NuEyes, and OrCam. Longtime attendee Tomasina Perry, Vice President of Sales for LS&S, renewed friendships with the veterans that extend well over a decade.
According to Convention Project Assistant Chelsey Dumond, Sprint Vision gave an iPad to one lucky attendee while several veterans with total vision loss were able to take a “test drive” using the Aira glasses, which function for a blind or visually impaired person similar to the way in which an OnStar device works in a vehicle.
“The word ‘amazing’ was the one I most often heard to describe the technology presented throughout the Exhibit Hall,” said Chelsey.
Educational Sessions Inform and Motivate
Blinded veterans Jim Hogan, Phil Faris, Gary Traynor, Bob Smith, and Doris Jones conducted educational sessions for their fellow members. The presentations were complemented by sessions conducted by staff members covering White Cane Day, Officer Training, and BVA Advocacy Activities.
BVA members were also able to experience new technology through a presentation by Bill Boules on the Amazon Echo. According to Chelsey, those attending the convention and who also completed a survey form unanimously agreed that they had left the session learning something new and would recommend it to a fellow blinded veteran and/or caregiver. They commented often that the Amazon Echo was extremely valuable.
Focus groups for guide dog users, golf enthusiasts, and a newly established women veterans group within BVA met during the evening of August 24.
Attendees Meet and Greet At Annual Reception
Tuesday evening hosted the official kickoff to the convention with the President’s Reception, sponsored again this year by America’s VetDogs and also by Non-24 by Vanda. Following the meal representatives from Aira, America’s VetDogs, NuEyes and Non-24 energized the crowd and received applause after pledging future sponsorship of the BVA convention while accentuating both the service owed to our veterans and the need for new technology for the blind and visually impaired community.
Both Dale Stamper and Al Avina welcomed attendees to the convention. Unlike other President’s Receptions that have been served buffet style, the event consisted of a full-course dinner served by the hotel staff.
Selfless Volunteers Give Needed Assistance
Volunteers from the local community such as Russ Owens of VFW Post 10394 and Sandra Wicker of the local convention and visitors bureau (Visit Milwaukee) are always an invaluable component of every BVA National Convention.
BVA national conventions would not be possible without the cheerful service and dedication of volunteers, both the regulars who serve each year as well as those recruited in local areas by Convention Volunteer Coordinator extraordinaire Margarine Beaman.
Volunteers at the 71st National Convention were certainly no exception.
Special thanks must always be extended to Margarine, who is on duty 24/7 at both the airport and at the hotel at all conventions. She has no time to herself! Of great assistance also in Milwaukee was Russ Owens, Commander of VFW Post 10394 of Hales Corners-Franklin, Wisconsin. Russ spent much of the week helping Margarine at the hotel.
Volunteers such as Sandra Wicker also came from Visit Milwaukee, the convention and visitors bureau of the city. Other dedicated volunteers included Kathleen Hanna and designated BVA Sweetheart Lindsay Ruais.
Dignitaries Energize Opening Business Session
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, right, presented Dale Stamper with Braille version of proclamation declaring August 24 Blinded Veterans Association Day throughout the State of Wisconsin.
The official opening of the convention came with a bang as dignitary attendees included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI-4), all of whom spoke before the BVA membership, their families, and VA personnel attending the concurrent BRS conference in the Convention Center.
BVA was honored with official proclamations from both Barrett and Walker. In both cases, August 24 was declared Blinded Veterans Association Day. The Governor’s Proclamation was also presented to Dale Stamper in Braille format.
“Our men and women in uniform sacrifice every day to protect the freedom of our nation,” said Walker. “The meaning of that sacrifice is known all too well by our veterans and their families. Today, we thank them for their courage, selflessness, and willingness to fight for our nation. We also recognize the Blinded Veterans Association for their leadership and advocacy for our blinded veterans.”
Secretary McDonald was greeted by applause as he opened his remarks with a short pitch for research. He related a story about Otto Catalán, a blinded veteran who served in the Persian Gulf with the Navy in the 1990s. At age 23 he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. Last November a VA surgeon restored some of Otto’s sight with the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, better known as the Bionic Eye. The technology converts images through a camera and transmits them wirelessly to an implant in the eye. The implant sends the images to the brain.
“But here’s what it really does,” said Secretary McDonald. “After 19 years of total blindness, Otto could see the light outside and the sidewalk. After 19 years of total blindness, Otto could see his 20-year-old son. Amazing. That’s the power of research.”
Potpourri of Themes Featured at Forum
Honorary BVA Board Member Dr. Donald Gagliano, left, greeted Dr. Thomas B. Connor, Jr., following latter’s BVA Forum presentation.
Four leading authorities on emerging vision rehabilitation, consumer protection of veterans, retinal research, and other technological advances affecting the blind and visually impaired spoke in a forum setting on Thursday morning.
Speakers were The Honorable Dr. David J. Shulkin, Under Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Thomas B. Connor, Jr., MD, Professor of Ophthalmology and a Retinal Specialist at the Medical College of the Wisconsin Eye Institute; Tony Camili of the Consumer Financial Protection Board; and Kelly Egan, Customer Relationship Manager for Sprint focusing on services and telecommunications technology to the blind and low-vision community.
Bylaws, Resolutions, Leadership Changes
Major points of discussion at the convention included four new bylaw amendments, passed with little or no opposition in both the established Bylaws and Resolutions Committee meeting and by the full membership during the Closing Business Session. A fifth proposed amendment relating to the requirement of a balanced budget for the Association failed to pass.
The Committee was initially presented with 23 proposed resolutions. Two were removed because of irrelevance and 16 were considered and approved as a block since they had been introduced at conventions of prior years and approved. Five resolutions never before considered were introduced and passed with overwhelming approval by both the Committee and regional group delegates.
As of the Friday evening Awards Banquet swearing-in of National Officers by Joe Burns, only two of the 11 National Board of Director positions had new names next to them. The President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, Immediate Past National President, and Directors of Districts 1, 2, 5, and 6, remained on the Board while the following were either elected or appointed to their new positions: Vernon Richmond, Director of District 3; and Jhennicea Morrow, Director of District 4.
Joe Burns and Dr. Donald Gagilano will remain as Honorary Members of the Board of Directors in consulting roles on financial matters and matters relating to BVA stakeholder relations. Monaca Gilmore of the North Carolina Regional Group will take over as National Sergeant-at-Arms.
Vernon Richmond is an active member of the Eastern Chapter of the North Carolina Regional Group, having served most recently as vice president He has also served for at least one year as treasurer, chaplain, and sergeant-at-arms within his chapter. Vernon served in the U.S. Army combat infantry and spent 1967-69 in Vietnam, much of the time as a squad leader. He received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantry Medal during his tour of duty. He has worked as a line leader in the fabrics industry.
Jhennicea Morrow has mostly recently served as the president of the Arizona-Central/Northern Regional Group. She is also a Vietnam-era blinded veteran. Orphaned from birth, Jhennicea believes that her childhood foster homes, state homes, and military service trained her well to overcome whatever challenges she faces and to adapt to any adversity. Her BVA membership began at the Southwestern Blind Rehabilitation Center in Tucson when regional group officers recruited her to be the president. She has represented BVA in state-sponsored and political veterans programs, trained as a Volunteer Field Service Officer, participated in a 5K vision walk fundraiser for retinal diseases, and spoken with multiple Arizona agency leaders regarding the needs of blinded veterans. For Jhennicea, communication throughout the district is a must and the inclusion of OIF-OEF veterans toward active participation with BVA is vital.
John Carter Recalls Legendary Chaplain
Nancy Prussing’s Certificate of Appreciation presentation included a box of her beloved Ghiradelli chocolates, courtesy of the Minnesota Regional Group. The presentation followed John Carter’s inspirational Father Carroll Luncheon speech.
“Father Carroll took me under his wing for reasons I did not totally understand at the time but which are now very clear to me,” said John Carter.
Addressing attendees of the Father Carroll Luncheon, John said his experiences with the first BVA chaplain were shaped in part by events of the time—civil unrest related to the Vietnam War, racial tensions in his native Milwaukee, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.
“He was a real advocate for civil rights and, although his ideas were very different from mine, he apparently saw something in me during our short, private conversations that I could not see in myself at the time,” he said.
John Carter’s experiences with Father Carroll were different from those of most blinded veterans. The latter group knew Father Carroll through interactions with him at national conventions and other BVA meetings in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. John knew him as a trainee on Father Carroll’s own turf—the St. Paul’s Rehabilitation Center (now Carroll Center for the Blind).
John’s vision loss was caused by a sniper’s shotgun blast during city riots in 1967, soon after he became a Patrol Officer with the Milwaukee Police Department and following his service in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.
“Father Carroll was a no-nonsense kind of guy to whom I owe a lot,” he said. “He really understood blindness in terms of the losses that take place, but he also knew how to help others be the best they could be as they recovered from those losses.”
John received a law degree in from Marquette University in 1974 and then accumulated more than 40 years of trial experience, serving on both criminal and civil cases.
Following John’s address, BVA awarded Nancy Prussing, former VIST Coordinator at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, with a Certificate of Appreciation. The Association also recognized the Southwestern BRC in Tucson with a plaque for its outstanding service to blinded veterans, revealed through a recent Veterans Care Review conducted there. BRC Chief Diana Kellermeyer received the award on behalf of the program she directs.
Outside Activities Feature Harley, Brewers, Potawatomi
An avid motorcyclist himself, Mike Kanitsch of the Arizona Central/Northern Regional Group checks out the feel of an older model during visit to Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
The Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, clearly visible in the city’s skyline, is considered an epicenter of entertainment in Milwaukee.
If visits to Potawatomi on Monday and/or Wednesday evening were not enough fun, a small group of convention attendees also enjoyed a ten-inning major league baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday evening.
Still another highlight of the week came about Friday afternoon as approximately 50 veterans and family members swarmed the Harley Davidson Museum. Attendees were given guided tours through the history of Harley Davidson, which included a replica of the very first bike and the controversy over which of the names Harley and Davidson should come first in the official company name.
At the end of the tour, more than ten motorcycles, tricycles, and scooters were made available for the visitors to sit on with no fear of tipping over. According to Chelsey, the staff member in charge of getting everyone to and from the museum, those feeling a bit more extravagant like Eric Marts and Walley Guerra were able to sit on and rev the engine of motorcycles set up on a stationary track.
“The Harley Davidson visit was one very difficult event to pull people away from,” she said. “But the Awards Banquet would not wait!”
Dedication, Sacrifice Recognized at Banquet
“Dedication, Sacrifice Recognized at Banquet” (GuerraStamper)—Walley Guerra, right, congratulated by Dale Stamper as he receives Melvin J. Maas Award at convention Awards Banquet.
Guadalupe “Walley” Guerra of the South Texas Regional Group received this year’s Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. Walley became the president of the South Texas Regional Group in 2013. From the beginning, he spent tireless hours learning the BVA bylaws, the regional group manual, and any other resources he could locate to learn his responsibilities. He evaluated the group’s performance and created goals to increase transportation assistance for members, ways to connect with younger blinded veterans, and new ways to develop research programs.
Ruben D. Sanchez Burgos of the Puerto Rico Regional Group is the recipient of the Irving Diener Award. Now secretary of the group, Ruben has been a BVA member since 2009. He has also served as the group’s sergeant-at-arms. As secretary, Ruben has reorganized and enhanced the group’s filing system, introduced monthly assistance worksheets for the executive committee, and tracked volunteer hours. From 2011 until 2014 he logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours at the VA Caribbean Healthcare Center and the Puerto Rico BRC. He also implemented a group mail system which allows officers to keep in regular contact with their members.
Betty Charlesworth began her service to blinded veterans in 2003 as the spouse of Robert Charlesworth, a BVA member. She assisted the regional group with paperwork and began volunteering in the VIST office in 2004. She formed a team of interested volunteers to help fold and mail newsletters to veterans, compile telephone numbers of new BVA members, and initiate a BVA Auxiliary regional group in the eastern part of Oklahoma. She served as the group’s first president until 2011 and has served as vice president ever since. Betty organizes potluck luncheons for White Cane Day celebrations, collects educational materials for children, participates in the Oklahoma Disability Awareness Days at the State Capitol Building, and is involved in Veterans Day parades in both Tulsa and Muskogee each year. She had logged 1,894 documented VIST office volunteer hours as of March 2016.
The Louisiana Regional Group earned the Gold Gavel, having seen the largest increase in number of new members of any other group. The Silver Gavel, awarded on the basis of percentage increase in members, was presented to the Emerald Coast Regional Group, one of BVA’s newest regional groups. The Bronze Gavel, now in just its third year of existence, went to the Florida Regional Group. The Bronze Gavel is awarded to the group that converts the largest number of nonmembers (for whom BVA already has a record) into members during the fiscal year.
Looking Ahead To 72nd Gathering
Christina and Chelsea expressed a few final sentiments about this year’s convention and their hopes for the next one:
As the curtain has now come down on the 71st convention, we encourage everyone to continue serving one another in order to uphold the BVA motto, which urges us to do just that. The BVA Convention Staff and National Headquarters would like to thank the numerous volunteers that provided assistance to our members, all of the sponsors and exhibitors who shared their knowledge and expertise with our attendees, and, most importantly our members and caregivers for being a part of such a spectacular event.
A convention is not possible without attendees. With the support and feedback of everyone involved, we can continue to improve and meet the needs of our blinded veterans. We hope that all of our Bulletin readers will join us next year. Information and details about location and dates will be released to all members as soon as it becomes available.