Reflections on 2020

As I reflect on 2020, I’m reminded of how optimistic I felt approaching the start of this year.  I was excited at the prospect of playing on the whole “20/20 vision” theme, and 2020 is a number that seemed so full of hope.  At Blind Beginnings we were in the final stages of a big important application to Social Venture Partners, and planning an upgraded Gala with an almost entirely new Committee of fundraising Volunteers. On the program side we had launched Baby Beginnings, a brand new program for our youngest members, and were thrilled to have these new families getting connected with the organization.  On a personal note, I had set this crazy goal to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of blind Canadians called Team Limitless.

The year started off busy and fun with some highlights being; Community Discovery outings to try down hill skiing at Grouse Mountain, snow shoeing in Kamloops, a profitable and fun Trivia Night fundraiser at Moose’s Down Under in Vancouver, and an Early Intervention Family Retreat at the Kiwi Cove Lodge on Vancouver Island.  Little did we know that when we said good-bye to those families on the island, they would be the last families we would connect with in-person for so many months.

Those first two weeks of shut down over spring break were the hardest for me.  Life came to a grinding halt, and most of our beloved programs were now not doable.  My usual pattern when faced with adversity is to allow myself some wallow time. Once I’m fed up with my wallowing I move on to the next phase, which is to attack the problem.  And attack the problem I did!

By April 1 we were ready with a suite of weekly online programming.  We had programs running 6 days a week with something for everybody from Mentor Mondays to Fitness Fridays, support groups for kids, teens, 19+ young adults, and parents, and of course Baby Beginnings online.  I soon realized I was seeing my own family less than before, even though they were home and in the house with me all the time.  As summer approached, we adjusted our programming, recognizing that what we had created was not sustainable.

Summer was certainly different this year with no in-person summer camps.  I definitely mourned the absence of campfire sing-a-longs, communal meals, and watching friendships between families blossom.  However, we did try some virtual camp nights in partnership with CNIB, and they were really fun; the highlights for me were Talent Night, Campfire, and Music Bingo!  We also ran a Summer Harry Potter Book Club which was very popular amongst our members.  Two of our BB alumni read us book 1 of the series, and each week other youth could sign up to read some of the smaller character parts.  Side note: working from my backyard in the summer wasn’t so bad either.

After evaluating and adjusting our programming several times, we now feel we have settled in to the right recipe.  We’re still offering support groups for all ages, but most are offered every other week.  Other programs like our Exploring Work Wednesdays, Creating Connections for Teens, and Baking with Blind Beginnings are monthly, and Creating Confidence Workshops take place several times per year, focusing on different themes each time.

We missed being together at our AGM and family BBQ, our summer camps, our annual Youth Leadership training weekend, and of course our annual holiday party, but all were still offered in a virtual format.  Of course it wasn’t the same, but one important silver lining has been that families from outside Metro-Vancouver could truly and fully participate in some of the programs that were previously based in Metro-Vancouver.

The 2020 Blind Beginnings Gala would have been our 10th in-person Gala.  This annual celebration of the children and families we serve and the important work we are doing, has become my favorite day of the year.  When we realized an in-person event would not be possible, and started to consider what a virtual event might look like, I was so nervous. The virtual Gala far exceeded our expectations in every way.  Not only was it a profitable fundraiser, but it went off with no technical problems, and all the feedback we received from Gala guests was glowing.  We could not have pulled this off without the support of our committee of fundraising volunteers, the support of Descriptive Video Works, MC Arran Henn, and tech support Kent Stephany.

Our team also grew this year with the creation of a Communications Coordinator position and the introduction of Rob Mineault to our team.  Thanks to Rob, Blind Beginnings finally launched the podcast our Youth Leaders and I had been wanting to create for several years.  Our Limitless podcast has been my most enjoyable project of 2020.  We just recorded our 30th episode this week, which seems unbelievable.  You may or may not know that I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and this trait certainly showed itself in my new obsession with perfecting my sound. Each week I tried recording with different alterations to my environment.  From hanging blankets across my window and over my desk, to sitting on the floor with the couch behind me and talking into a chair, to creating an entire blanket fort around myself.  Each week I would wait to hear the recording only to discover that I still sounded hollow like I was in an auditorium.  Recently I got some better equipment and assistance from a techy friend and I think I might now be satisfied with how I sound.  The Limitless Blog is another new addition that Rob also set us up with. Several of our Youth Leaders and alumni are contributing articles to the blog each week.  It has been refreshing to have these new platforms to showcase the voices of youth and young adults who are blind or partially sighted.

In addition to bringing Rob onto the BB team, we also welcomed Emily Burkholder, our new Program Coordinator, and said good-bye to Carrie Tse.  It is certainly challenging to onboard new staff when everybody is working remotely, but I think our Director of Operations Lia Dicicco has done a phenomenal job of finding ways to build this supportive and cohesive team.  I couldn’t think of a better group of people to work through a pandemic with.

Another silver lining to the COVID cloud has been receiving some funding for counselling services for the first time.  Having funders who recognize how important counselling support is to children and youth who are blind or partially sighted, and their families is so encouraging.  Counselling support is now offered remotely via Zoom or over the phone, making it more accessible to members across BC.  I’ve realized recently that being able to support others during such a difficult time has helped me to cope with this pandemic myself; it has given me a purpose and a sense that I am doing my small part to make a difference.

As 2020 comes to a close, I’m optimistic that the worst of Covid-19 is behind us and that we will be able to be physically together again sometime in 2021.  In the meantime, we will continue to offer a range of creative, informative, and fun virtual programs and services.

Good riddance to 2020 and bring on 2021!  Happy New Year!

by Shawn Marsolais
Executive Director, Blind Beginnings