A while ago, my wife and I were going through a closet, cleaning out some stuff we never use. Among the items were some stuffed animals that had sat on the shelf for years which I planned to give to the nursing home where I volunteer. They love them. One of the items was a little beanie baby in green corduroy with a funny face glued on it. It conjured up some memories that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
I was in my twenties when I volunteered to be an adviser for Junior Achievement. For those of you not familiar with the program, it is a chance for high school students to get together with people from the business community to work as a team to plan, develop, and implement their own mock business. I was pretty excited about the opportunity to work with the kids.
A couple of weeks before the first meeting, we were each given a list of names and telephone numbers. We were instructed to call each person and welcome them to our team as well as answer any questions they may have. I noticed that my list had several numbers with the same prefix, but more interestingly, the numbers themselves were pretty close. As I proceeded to call them, I asked one of them if perhaps they knew each other. The young lady said “Oh yes, we all go to school together”. That’s when it hit me they all attended a private school.
On the first night, the advisers were instructed to get there early so as to be available to greet everyone and help them find their assigned rooms. I was standing just outside the door to my room when I noticed a string of six or seven students progressing down the hall in single file, each with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. They were all blind or legally blind and they were looking for me. They were students at the Indiana School For The Blind.
I don’t remember what my exact thoughts were when I realized that I would be instructing blind students to develop and run a business, but I do know that I questioned whether I was up to the task. However, after a “get to know you” session with all the other students, we settled into the indoctrination process of picking a business and a product. I could not believe the enthusiasm with which they accepted the challenge. They named their company TCB for Taking Care of Business, and ultimately decided that they were going to make beanie babies called “adorable uglies”. This would require buying materials, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, accounting, and finance. The next step would be to assign tasks. Who would head up each of these functions. I was surprised when two of the blind students volunteered to make them, while others jumped at marketing and distribution.
As the weeks progressed, the students found outlets (mostly free) for scrap fabric and beans for stuffing the beanies. One of the other teams had set themselves up as a bank, and our elected finance officer obtained a loan from them to buy whatever else we needed. The program provided some old sewing machines for teams that needed them. Soon, we were under way. Patterns were cut and felt faces were glued on. The girl that was to do the stitching had operated a sewing machine before, and operated it by touch. Another blind student filled the beanies before the final stitches were applied. Others took samples to their respective schools and began generating orders. One even had the idea of making them in school colors which ultimately increased sales. Soon, we were selling everything we could make, and everyone was involved. In the end, our team business had been a tremendous success and had in fact generated a profit. More importantly, a lot of new skills had been learned and new friendships had been made.
I for one came away with a new appreciation for people with disabilities. While I had immediately made assumptions about what they wouldn’t be able to do, they had shown me what they could do. While my initial reaction had been to figure out what I could do to help them, they had focused on helping themselves. They did not want my pity. They wanted my support. It was a humbling experience.
Several times during my career, I ran across difficult situations which I didn’t want to address and would ask myself “why me”. But I only had to think of those students to ask myself “why not me”. Funny how we can set out to teach and end up learning instead.