CHAPTER I - BVA ORIGINS AND HISTORY

 

Section 1. Overview

 

A. BVA is a non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1945 by a group of soldiers blinded in World War II. BVA was incorporated in 1947 in New York State and was subsequently chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1958 as a veterans' service and membership organization exclusively devoted to assisting blind and severely visually-impaired men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces.

B. The mission of BVA, as reflected in its charter, is to promote the welfare of blinded veterans so that notwithstanding their disabilities, they may take their rightful place in their communities.

C. The Blinded Veterans Association is governed by a Board of Directors, conducting business in accordance with the BVA National By-Laws. Basic authority on all matters concerning the Association is vested in the membership assembled and voting in convention. BVA maintains a National Headquarters at 477 H Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

D. The following information is provided to give regional group officers some background and understanding of BVA's early history and traditions, as well as some of the early concerns and developments that influence the activities of the Association today.

Section 2. Historical Highlights and Early Events

 

A. The Blinded Veterans Association was formed over 50 years ago, when blinded soldiers, home from Europe and the Pacific, began personally experiencing the bitter, often intolerable loss of dignity and independence due in large part from the public ignorance and prejudice concerning blindness.

B. There were real and important reasons for forming BVA. In addition to the attitudes of the general public, some of the members of that original group remember the lack of rehabilitation, job training, educational programs, and a lack of sensitivity on the part of military and federal officials. Blinded veterans soon learned that they couldn't rely on others for the help they needed.

C. One of BVA's founders recalls, "We wanted to get away from having to rely on other veterans organizations, where blinded veterans were put in the position of begging for help. We were out there with our 'lights out' and the other organizations just couldn't understand this."

D. Blinded veterans formed BVA from the frustration of being denied the opportunity to prove themselves and make their own contribution to society. BVA was born out of a longing to stay together; to stick together and support one another in the fight that lay ahead.

E. A letter written in 1946 by another BVA founder speaks so well of the emotions, hopes and the determination behind the founding of BVA as follows:

1. "We must begin to realize the effectiveness of a concentrated attack against our common problem, blindness."
2. "When this attack is launched by a group of blind people working together with a purpose, the old fears, taboos, and misconceptions which have long made blindness a tragedy, must be defeated."
3. "This is our own fight. As a result of the recent war, we find ourselves in a battle against darkness and ignorance which rivals any engagement we have ever experienced."
4. "This battle has been raging for hundreds of years, but perhaps the most effective tactics have not yet been employed."
5. "If we stick together, we can spearhead the advance which must be made against public misunderstanding and the voluntary limitations which the sighted and unsighted alike have placed on the capabilities of the blind."
6. "Let's not sit down and wait for someone to make it easy for us. If we try that method, the result will be 1,000 blinded and disappointed veterans still waiting with sad glass eyes, and rusty discharge buttons in 1990."
7. "We cannot expect much help or cooperation in our fight unless we prove worthy of it. If we do not wish to be considered hopeless, we must begin to produce. Telling people about our independence and capabilities will not convince them. We must demonstrate these attributes again and again."


Section 3. Avon "Old Farms" Convalescent Hospital

 

A. BVA was organized at the Army Convalescent Hospital in Avon, Connecticut. 'Old Farms', as the site was called, opened in June 1944 under the direction of the Army Surgeon General. Between one hundred and two hundred war blinded soldiers were in treatment at any given time. By the time 'Old Farms' closed in June 1947, it had treated almost 900 men.

B. BVA was officially organized on March 28, 1945 during a meeting of about 100 blinded soldiers at 'Old Farms'. A blinded veteran, Pincus Hoffman, chaired the meeting, and the group approved a constitution that had been carefully worked out at earlier meetings and drafted by Arthur Brothers, a New York City attorney.

C. Nine blinded veterans were chosen to form the Board of Directors. Baynard Kendrick, a sighted author, editor, writing instructor, and an earnest crusader for blinded veterans, was named Honorary Chairman of the Board, until a blinded veteran could be selected. Raymond Frey was subsequently elected as BVA's first National President.

D. A temporary BVA office was set up in New York City. Free office space and secretarial help for one year was provided by the American Foundation for the Blind through Ms. Kathern Gruber.


E. Ms. Gruber also convinced AFB's Board to donate funds to pay BVA's expenses during the first year. Letters were sent to blinded veterans encouraging them to join the new BVA, and the first edition of the BVA BULLETIN was prepared.


 F. At the time of BVA's founding, Ms. Gruber was the Director of War Blinded Services for the American Foundation for the Blind. She had visited and guided blinded veterans at Valley Forge Army Hospital since the early days of World War II. For many years, Ms. Gruber wrote a special column for the BVA BULLETIN, attended Board meetings and national conventions. Always a true friend to blinded veterans, BVA's Scholarship Program- the Kathern F. Gruber Scholarship -was established in her honor.


G. The name of Father Thomas J. Carroll is another name often heard at BVA meetings and conventions. Father Carroll was a source of wisdom and inspiration for the young soldiers who formed BVA. He encouraged and guided blinded veterans through the beginning years of the Association, and gave generously of his time and energy, constantly reminding and urging blinded veterans that they could and should be more. He felt strongly that BVA could make the world a better place for the blind and the sighted alike. Each year, a luncheon in Father Carroll's memory is held at the BVA National Convention.


Section 4. Membership

 

A. The BVA Charter and By-Laws speak of Members, Associate Members, and Honorary Members. However, membership in the early years consisted solely of war-blinded veterans. Later, a category of non-voting Associate Members was established to allow blinded veterans who had regained their sight to remain with the Association. The Associate Member category was later changed to include non-service-connected blinded veterans.


B. Membership dues in the new Association were set deliberately low - $5.00 per year - so no blinded veteran would be denied a chance to join.


C. Shortly after BVA was formed, it was decided that blinded Navy and Marine Corps veterans would be encouraged to be members of BVA. At the time, blinded Marines and Navy personnel were treated at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.


D. Another early decision was that BVA would push for uniform blind rehabilitation and training. The veterans felt that the program at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital was not to the standard being set by the Army at Avon 'Old Farms'.


Section 5. The BVA BULLETIN

 

A. The blinded veterans who formed BVA faced a serious communications problem - how to keep the organization vital, together, and growing - how to keep in touch with blinded veterans across the nation - how to keep them informed and involved in issues crucial to their needs. Many blinded veterans had written the new BVA and asked for their own newsletter.


B. One of the first decisions made by the new BVA was to begin publishing the BVA BULLETIN. The first edition was released in April 1946, prepared by blinded veterans and sighted volunteers. Lloyd Greenwood, a blinded veteran, was the first editor. The membership voted to change the BULLETIN to a quarterly publication.


C. In the early years, the BVA BULLETIN often served as a personal communications link for blinded veterans who had been discharged from the hospitals, particularly 'Old Farms' and Valley Forge. Blinded veterans would write in telling what they were doing and how they were solving problems, and often there would be announcements of graduations, new jobs, marriages, and the births of children, Today, as well as in the early years, BVA uses the BVA BULLETIN to tell of VA programs and services, new equipment and aids, and developments within the Association.


Section 6. Early Acceptance by the VA

 

A. In early years, as today, much time and energy was devoted to issues involving the Veterans Administration - struggling with what was felt to be an insensitive bureaucracy and trying to cut through 'red tape' that effectively excluded blinded veterans from VA Programs.


B. Often, blinded veterans were unfairly denied housing, job training, educational benefits and access to other programs because it was felt they were unsuitable. At the time, BVA had no official standing or recognition or influence with VA.


C. However, in May 1946, BVA officers were able to meet with General Omar Bradley, the VA Administrator, and air their grievances; the problems being encountered at VA by blinded veterans.


D. At the time, there were over 350 new veterans' organizations clamoring for VA attention. BVA's high goals and standards, as well as its non-political posture, were judged to be reasons for General Bradley's receptivity to the new Association, and helped greatly in BVA's subsequent status as a recognized veterans' service organization. Again, in 1946, BVA convinced the Veterans Administration to set up an advisory committee on the rehabilitation of blinded veterans.


Section 7. Formation of Regional Groups

 

A. In forming BVA, blinded veterans realized that when they finally went home, some local BVA structure would be needed where they could meet, bring in new blinded veterans, and provide the 'mutual aid and assistance' spoken to in the BVA constitution. Just receiving the BVA BULLETIN would not be enough. Fellowship, sharing, working toward common goals - that could best be done in their own local BVA groups.

B. Regional groups were formed from this need and later tied to the BVA governing structure by amendments to the National By-Laws. The first BVA regional group was organized in Baltimore, Maryland in 1946, and other groups followed quickly. A current list of regional groups can be found here on the BVA website.

Section 8. Early Finances

 

A. Finding the money needed to operate the new BVA was a major problem. The Association had no funds when it was organized, and membership dues were too low to provide significant funding for Association activities. Free office space and volunteer help would work for only a short time. Moreover, the BVA founders were hesitant to ask for help, and certainly did not want to appear as blind people begging for money. Perhaps, it was not understood that the American people would help support the goals of BVA and help blinded veterans if they were just asked. So finding the money to keep BVA in business was a continuing concern. Often it appeared that BVA could not survive.

B. Fortunately, on July 15, 1946, just when the situation looked terminal, BVA received a gift of $25,000 from the Women's International Bowling Congress of Louisville, Kentucky. This gift was followed by others. It was a real break and BVA was saved, but the critical nature of the problem remained for years. Finding enough money to do the things BVA must do is a problem that remains with us today.

Section 9. BVA Chartered by Congress

 

A. On August 27, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law, an act of the 85th Congress formally incorporating and chartering the Blinded Veterans Association.


B. Congressman T.A. Thompson of Louisiana introduced the bill to incorporate BVA on June 21, 1957, remarking: "The worthy efforts of the membership of the Blinded Veterans Association deserve no less than recognition by the Congress of the United States."


C. The Charter placed BVA in a league with other larger and better known veterans' service organizations such as the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The BVA had proven itself, and was now officially recognized as the organization primarily responsible for serving America's blinded veterans.

Section 10. First Blind Rehabilitation Center Opens

 

A. The first VA Blind Rehabilitation Center was opened on May 20, 1948, at the VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois. The new Rehabilitation Center had beds for nine blinded veterans. Though small, it was the realization of one of BVA's most cherished dreams.

B. An article in the July, 1948 BVA BULLETIN announced the Center's opening: "A basic and remedial adjustment and training center for veterans with service- connected blindness requiring hospitalization for treatment thereof, or a condition flowing therefrom, is being placed in operation at this time in the VA Hospital, Hines, Illinois."

C. "The purpose of the training to be given at this center is to prevent the development of further physical or mental disorders which may arise as the result of blindness. The Center will be open to eligible blinded veterans from any branch area."

D. The BVA BULLETIN article told of an 18-week course of rehabilitation and training in a new facility equipped with fluorescent lighting, a fine staff of instructors, and orientation and mobility program, shop, woodworking, and metal working programs, occupational therapy, recreational, sports and social activities, instruction on the latest recording devices, and braille and typing classes, too. Rehabilitation for blinded veterans had finally arrived.

Section 11. The Field Service Program

 

A. The concept of a BVA Field Service Program began with early regional group efforts. George 'Buck' Gillespie began travelling throughout the Southern California Regional Group area to reach and help blinded veterans.

B. The BVA National Field Service Program was established in June, 1953. The program initially concentrated on the large numbers of blinded veterans who were not in training or not employed. An article in the BVA BULLETIN announced the Program which was to get underway in late 1953. Limited financial backing for the Program was provided by the Community Chest in 1953 and 1954.

C. Buck Gillespie was hired as the first BVA Field Representative. Dr. William Thompson was selected as the first National Field Service Director in 1954.

D. The Field Service Program has operated at various levels of intensity over the years. In 1974, BVA entered into a contract with the Veterans Administration to reach and help veterans blinded in the Vietnam War. The Field Service Program operated under the VA contract through 1987. The Program is not funded entirely by BVA.

Section 12. BVA Auxiliary

 

A. The BVA Auxiliary was organized during the BVA National Convention in New Orleans in 1978. Over the years, the Auxiliary has served as a forum where spouses of blinded veterans could meet and share common problems and concerns, and as a basis for carrying out projects supporting the overall mission of BVA. Membership in the BVA Auxiliary is open to spouses, family members, and sighted friends of BVA.