Innovation, Instruction Highlight 72nd Convention
by Chelsey Dumond
The Blinded Veterans Association’s 72nd National Convention has come and gone for another year. This year’s capstone event can be summed up in three words: Advocacy, Education, Support. Each component of this year’s convention centered on those three takeaways. From the education sessions and the exhibit hall to legislative updates and field service claims, the BVA staff worked hard to serve each need of our veterans, their spouses, and their caregivers.
The Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront provided an excellent venue as attendees experienced more than 55 exhibitors, remarks from local and national dignitaries, and even the occasional glimpse of a dolphin on the St. Johns River just outside.
On Monday and Tuesday of the convention week, attendees were invited to attend an unprecedented number of education sessions. A basic and advanced skills course was offered on the Victor Reader Stream device, allowing attendees to gain hands-on experience with the device in small working groups. For those who were interested in service dogs, Southeastern Guide Dogs provided an education session outlining its program and then answering questions.
Vision Rehabilitation expert Bill Boules, far right, moderates first-day technology panel discussion. Others, left to right: Enhanced Vision Director of Sales James Bailey, Amy Bernal of AIRA, and Sean Tibbits, CEO and co-founder of Cybertimez.
Also onsite was a representative from the Small Business Administration who explained all of the opportunities open to veterans who may already have a small business or who are interested in starting one. Monday wrapped up with exhibitor demonstrations by Crawford Technologies demonstrating their Voiceye application and a wearable devices panel featuring Cybertimez, Enhanced Vision, and the Aira device.
While fighting off the rain on Monday evening, 40 convention attendees enjoyed a baseball game between the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and the Mississippi Braves. While the home team lost the game by a large margin, attendees enjoyed the ballpark and even snapped a couple of photos with the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp mascot “Scampi!”
Tuesday sessions focused on regional group development with officer training, regional group fundraising, and a session led by the BVA Director of Government Relations. The latter focused on grassroots legislation and what a veteran can do in his or her area to make an impact. A representative from Florida Disaster was also onsite to provide an education session on what to do in a disaster followed, by a session on Deaf/Blind Communication led by BVA member and Helen Keller National Center Rehabilitation Specialist Mark Armstrong. Adding to the events, the Exhibit Hall at the 72nd National Convention was filled to capacity with more than 60 booths.
A total of 14 new companies were featured along with Exhibit Hall Sponsors LS&S, LLC; OrCam; VFO Group; Inclusite; Mobience; and eSight. Several governmental agencies were onsite, including the Social Security Administration, National Library Service, the National Cemetery Administration, Vision Center of Excellence, Hearing Center of Excellence, VA Office of Research and Development, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
BVA’s 72nd National Convention facilitated a little quality time for Enrique Sanchez with son, Daniel, a resident of nearby Port Richey, Florida. At left, Ronald White, New York Regional Group.
Fortuitous were the simultaneous meetings of VA Blind Rehabilitation Service personnel, who also profited from the Exhibit Hall located directly outside their main meeting room.
Tuesday evening wrapped up with the annual President’s Reception sponsored by Aira, En-Vision America, and National Industries for the Blind. BVA attendees were joined by the Interim Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Mr. Scott Blackburn, who provided encouraging remarks on the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs and graciously met with individual veterans after the dinner.
Wednesday morning opened with the 2017 Opening Session and a video from VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin. Attendees were also joined by local Congressman John Rutherford, who spoke of his dedication to public service and our nation’s veterans. The Director of Military Affairs and Veterans Department in Jacksonville, Mr. Bill Spann, joined the opening session on behalf of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry as well as Michelle Barth, the latter of whom provided remarks on behalf of Senator Bill Nelson. Feeling charged to advocate for the organization, BVA members delved into business meetings followed in the evening with small focus groups for women veterans and a Guide Dog Users Group.
Education led the way on Thursday morning with the BVA Forum. VA Director of Optometry Service Dr. John Townsend kicked off the event, followed by a very in-depth question and answer session with Gale Watson from VA Blind Rehabilitation Service. Also onsite was Dr. Maazli Shaikh, Section Chief of the Department of Ophthalmology and Optometry with the Orlando VA Medical Center. Tim Doherty from the Veterans Health Administration and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, VIST Coordinator David Hedrick rounded out the presentations.
The standout on Thursday, however, was Micheal Hudson of the American Printing House for the Blind as the keynote speaker for the Father Carroll Luncheon.
Remarks by Mr. Hudson were moving, to say the least, and even BVA National President Dale Stamper claimed to be left speechless. At a time of change in the nation, Mr. Hudson provided a direction and motivation through the words of Father Thomas Carroll himself from a speech he gave at the Father Carroll Luncheon in 1969. Nearing the end of a decade of turmoil, Father Carroll boasted his words of anger and despair, of confusion and bewilderment, and called for a movement to end the fighting, end the hate, and find within ourselves a commonality and will for the common good. It was these words that Mike Hudson shared with attendees and these words that speak to us in the name manner nearly 40 years later.
At the Father Carroll Luncheon BVA also presented Certificates of Appreciation for extraordinary service to Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole, Visual Impairment Services Team Coordinator at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia; and Kelly Golden, Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.
Feeling charged with emotion from Thursday afternoon, BVA members opened Friday morning with the Closing Business meeting, where a new Board of Directors was elected. Joe Parker, U.S. Navy Ret., was voted in as the 41st BVA National President since the organization’s founding in 1945. Joe will join Vice President Paul Mimms, Secretary Joe McNeil, and Treasurer Daniel Wallace as the organization’s National Officers for the coming year.
Other highlights of an exceptionally long Closing Business Meeting was the passage by delegates and attendees of 21 resolutions, or items of concern to BVA, that affect the blind and visually impaired within local government jurisdictions, within the national office of VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Service, or because of an act of Congress.
Jaewoo Ahn demonstrates Mobience Company technology, a small gadget enabling improved access to Smart devices, to BVA National Secretary Joe McNeil in Convention Exhibit Hall August 16. Ahn traveled to Jacksonville from the company’s home base, Seoul, South Korea.
After a long week several attendees took a guided tour of the Anheuser-Busch Factory in Jacksonville. Those on the brewery tour experienced the aroma and heat that goes into making the craft beer while getting to sample them at the end. Friday evening closed with the BVA Awards Banquet where the winners of the Melvin J. Maas, Irving Diener, and David L. Schnair award were announced and new board members sworn in.
Kennan “Ken” Horn of the Oklahoma Regional Group received BVA’s highest honor for 2017, the Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. The Irving Diener Award, which recognizes individual contribution to a BVA regional group or the national organization, went to Leonard Pope of the New Jersey Regional Group. Dennis O’Connell, New York Regional Group, received the David Schnair Award for outstanding service as a BVA volunteer.
Regional group gold, silver, and bronze gavel awards were presented to the Rocky Mountain, Emerald Coast, and Florida Regional Groups, respectively. The gold gavel recognizes the group with the greatest numerical increase, the silver the largest percentage increase, and the bronze the greatest increase in numbers of members who have become active after having been designated as inactive.
Although the heat was up on the last day of the convention due to a power outage in the area, literally and figuratively all attendees once again enjoyed the camaraderie of longtime friends and new acquaintances.
The BVA Convention staff would personally like to thank all those in attendance at the 72nd National Convention. A special thanks to Margarine Beaman as one who performs the tasks of many--from coordinator of volunteers at the airport to those onsite within the hotel. Our convention would not be possible without her efforts. Thank you also to the volunteers who joined us onsite and who took the time to care for and connect with our veterans and their families.
To all of the sponsors and exhibitors, we thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with our attendees and hope that you will continue to support the mission of the Blinded Veterans Association to leave no blinded veteran behind.
Last, but certainly not least, a particular thank you to all of the veterans for your service and dedication to the organization. A convention is not possible without attendees. With your support and feedback we can continue to improve and meet the needs of our blinded veterans. We hope that you will join us next year for our 73rd National Convention. The location and information will be released to all members as soon as it becomes available.
Acting VA Deputy Secretary Scott Blackburn, middle, visits with Puerto Rico contingency consisting of Angel Reyes-Figueroa and Cristela Torres following his President’s Dinner address. In background at right, Past National President Mark Cornell.