By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education & Outreach, IlluminArt Productions
All winter long, IlluminArt Productions has been writing our new play, “Prescription for Addiction,” about the current heroin epidemic on Staten Island. Our talented Teaching Artists and Wagner High School Write-A-Play students have collaborated with community agencies like Staten Island Partnerships for Community Wellness Tackling Youth Substance Abuse Initiative (TYSA) in preparation for our show’s premier on May 3rd, 2016. The show begins at 7pm at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and is “free” to the general public.
Flip through the pages of the Staten Island Advance or turn on the nightly news and you will hear the harrowing stories of families being torn apart by loved ones who’ve become entangled in the web of addiction. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what neighborhood you live in, or where you go to school – heroin is everywhere.
This cheaper, faster high, has quickly become an all too accessible alternative to prescription painkillers and marijuana. Gone are the days when heroin was “only” an injectable form of poison. Today’s drug users snort and even smoke this dangerous substance.
As a psychotherapist and licensed Credentialed Alcohol Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC); I spent the first half of my career working in the drug treatment field. Even as a trained professional, I can honestly say what is happening on Staten Island frightens me.
If you think your family is immune to the problem; you’re fooling yourself.
If you think drugs won’t affect someone in your immediate circle; you’re living in a bubble that will inevitably be popped.
If you think you don’t need to have a conversation about drugs with your kids; you’re not doing your job as a parent.
My passion for this cause and ultimately the work I have contributed towards writing “Prescription for Addiction” goes far beyond my role as IlluminArt’s Director of Education & Outreach. I empathize with these stories because heroin impacted my own family many years ago.
I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. It was the day after Christmas and my sisters and I were playing with all the new toys we had gotten from Santa. We sat in our bedroom together, happily enjoying our childhood innocence as we came up with different scenarios for our newest Barbie dolls. My mom had been out of sorts that entire day. She seemed off, distant.
Things became even stranger when my father showed up around lunchtime. My dad never came home for lunch. Covered in grease from the auto shop where he worked; he whizzed past our bedroom door. I was only 8 years old and I jumped up to see him. He put his hand up to stop me and asked, “Where’s mommy?” I shrugged my shoulders.
That’s when I heard my mother scream - the loudest, most horrible, painful sound you could ever imagine. My sisters and I looked at each other. The sound of her cries had frozen us; we couldn’t move. Why was mommy so upset?
Moments passed that seemed like hours and I could hear my father telling my mother to calm down. Her sobs continued to echo through our tiny apartment. Finally, my father emerged from our kitchen and stood in our bedroom doorway. “Everything is okay. Mommy is okay. Uncle John went to heaven last night. He’s with the angels. Everything will be fine.”
As a little girl, I had always been secretly afraid of my Uncle John. He was loud and over bearing. He drank too much and smelled funny. When he would visit my grandparents, who lived below us; I would do everything I could to avoid him. I knew something was wrong with him, but as an 8-year-old kid, I wasn’t mentally equipped to figure out just what that was.
The last memory I have of my uncle he was standing in my backyard talking to my grandfather. He had asked if he could have a “couple of bucks” and reluctantly, my grandpa went into his pocket. It was then John pushed him against the side of our house, snatching his wallet before bolting out of our backyard. Grandpa did nothing. He simply stood up, walked over to the backyard gate and locked it before going back inside. Five minutes later, I could hear my grandmother crying.
When Nancy Reagan started her “Just Say No” campaign encouraging school aged children to combat peer pressure against drug use; my mom finally told me the truth about my deceased uncle. John had been a hardcore drug user. His drug of choice was heroin. He had been found dead in a YMCA in Jersey City, New Jersey the day after Christmas. It was an overdose. He was 29 years old.
Every holiday throughout my childhood, our family would make the arduous trek to the cemetery to visit my Uncle John. I would watch my grandparents as they stood at his grave. My grandmother would fuss over whatever flowers she had brought him. My mother would clean off the head stone. Years passed, but the pain never went away.
Watching my family endure the passing of my uncle left a deep imprint on my life. The man who I had disliked so much in childhood took on the role of subconscious advisor for me. Those memories of the heartache he caused my family prompted me to resist the temptation to experiment with drugs throughout my youth. His senseless death was "my" reminder to “just say no” because I had lived through the alternative as a little girl.
It’s funny how life can come full circle. Almost 30 years have passed since Uncle John’s death. I’ve far surpassed his short lifetime and built a career on helping people who have fallen victim to addiction.
A few years ago, heroin, the drug that killed John, was thought to be an extinct high on the drug scene. As Staten Islanders and the rest of the world are learning, heroin never really went away.
It’s been here all along, lurking.
It’s back with a vengeance in an attempt to take hold of this generation.
“Prescription for Addiction” will help educate our borough about every facet of this drug. Peer pressure, drug abuse, family dynamics, and the role of predatory drug dealers are just some of the themes IlluminArt tackles throughout the play.
This show is the culmination of months of writing, research and integration with community resources and leaders. It’s a gateway to a bigger conversation between parents, children, educators and schools.
Our sincere hope is that you leave this performance having a deeper understanding about heroin, how to recognize the signs associated with drug abuse, and how to get help for a loved one before it’s too late.
Come see the premiere of “Prescription for Addiction” on Tuesday, May 3rd, at 7pm at the JCC., 1466 Manor Road. Help IlluminArt Productions spread the word about our informative, theatrical take on the heroin epidemic.
Do it for yourself.
Do it for your children.
Do it for someone you love like my Uncle John.
Pictured: Holly Bonner's Uncle John. His picture hangs in her home, a gentle reminder of how his addiction impacted her life.
By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education & Training, IlluminArt Productions
The holidays have come and gone and a New Year is upon us. IlluminArt staff has no intention of slowing down as we gear up for our 2016 performances and our annual event fundraiser, Empowering Voices. As we continue the arduous task of preparing for this unforgettable night on January 10th, 2016, it got me thinking…
“Why does IlluminArt call this event “Empowering Voices?”
IlluminArt’s programs touch so many people on so many different levels. It’s like peeling back the layers of one gigantic, creative onion. Our Touring Company members “empower voices” through the messages conveyed in their acting. Whether it’s a performance of Peace Up discussing the tough topic of bullying in schools or a scene from Sometimes I Just Want Ice-Cream about moving on beyond the death of a loved one; our actors breathe life into the characters they play. The result is a thought provoking performance for students, teachers, and administrators that begins a bigger conversation on how to help kids cope with these tough social situations. Our Touring Company have “empowering voices” because the words they speak from our scripts translate into usable, practical knowledge that can be harnessed into everyday life.
Our audiences find “empowering voices” after watching IlluminArt’s performances. Many students want to learn more about the topics we discuss. During our question and answer period at the conclusion of each of our shows, kids courageously share their own experiences with the cast and their classmates. For those children who choose to remain silent, IlluminArt’s presence in their school is an opportunity for administrators to reiterate integral support staff that students can go to and seek additional help, counseling or resources. Our audiences find their voice. They become empowered.
The diversity of IlluminArt’s programming allows our Teaching Artists to work with different populations. For example, the same Write-A-Play Program is utilized in elementary schools and with students at Wagner High School. IlluminArt’s ACTive Adult Program works with senior citizens to help them create a narrative of their own unique life stories and translate them into scripts to perform for their peers. Our programs “empower voices” because our Teaching Artists show participants how to draw from their own imaginations and life experiences to create narratives with universal messages.
Finally, IlluminArt gains strength by surrounding themselves with people who share our vision and promote empowerment within the Staten Island Community. This year’s honorees include Bobby Digi, President & CEO of Island Voice, Ralph Vogel, Executive Director of the Pride Center of Staten Island and Mohammed Hussari, Petrides High School Senior & IlluminArt Program Alumni. Our Outstanding Ensemble Award will be presented to Wagner High School Theater Students. IlluminArt is also honoring the Staten Island Foundation for their generous support of our theatrical programming. Each of our honorees uses their voice to empower the Staten Island community within their professional organizations or through their own theatrical endeavors that impart IlluminArt’s message to others.
As we welcome 2016, we hope everyone touched by IlluminArt’s programming finds a way to become empowered by using their own voice. Be the change you want to see in the world. Harness your own unique creativity and make your mark in the Staten Island community. Be brave! Be bold! Be you!
We hope to see all of you at the Staaten on January 10th, 2016 as IlluminArt Production’s presents “Empowering Voices.” Come see for yourself. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll most definitely leave feeling empowered!
Get tickets now!
By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
Thanksgiving is truly one of my most favorite holidays. I respect its historical symbolism and the emphasis on gratitude towards good friends, good family and of course good food! There is no fussing over gifts and it’s the one-day out of the year where wearing elastic waist pants is not only acceptable, but also encouraged. Over the years I’ve had my fair share of memorable turkey days. However, one Thanksgiving in particular always stands out in my mind.
During high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the UNICO Foundation at a local church in my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. UNICO is an Italian American non-profit organization that engages in charitable works, supports higher education and promotes patriotic related causes. That year, UNICO sponsored a huge Thanksgiving feast for local senior citizens. I had spent most of my high school career working as a waitress at a local Italian restaurant. I knew how to carry a tray and my high school’s Director of Student Activities, Mrs. Arszulowicz, suggested that I volunteer at the event for a few hours.
I vividly remember the hustle and bustle in the church basement that afternoon. The entire place smelled like turkey and warm apple pie. The sound of all the aluminum trays and tin foil being used was deafening. Every volunteer had a job, even the children. By the time the busloads of senior citizens pulled up in front of the church, everyone was wearing both an apron and a smile.
Table after table, I shuffled paper plates of food amongst the seniors. Once everyone had been served, the volunteers were encouraged to mix and mingle with the guests. Some of them had no living family. Others openly admitted to having relatives that were either unable, or in some cases unwilling, to spend the holiday with them. Over the next few hours these strangers would leave a lasting impression on my life. Here’s what I learned that Thanksgiving:
1) Family doesn’t necessarily mean “related”: Bouncing from table to table it became abundantly clear that although most of the people present were of no “blood” relation, many considered each other family. I heard countless stories from the guests about how they lived on the same floor at a senior center or how they had become each other’s family after the death of a loved one. That Thanksgiving, family was defined by friendships forged in circumstance, not DNA.
2) Listen to the Elderly: Here’s the deal, anyone that has lived longer than you has more experience than you. If you ever have the opportunity to listen and learn from those experiences, I strongly suggest you take advantage of it. The men and women I met that Thanksgiving shared stories about their families and the history they had been a part of. They emphasized the importance about growing up to be a good, kind and caring individual. Most importantly, they urged me to appreciate my own family and treasure the time I spent with them. Twenty years later, I can honestly say I learned more about life from the three hours I spent with those senior citizens that I have ever learned in any classroom.
3) A Little Kindness Goes Along Way: I don’t know what these adults were more appreciative for, the hot meal or the conversation. A few kind words and some extra attention made these seniors feel like a million bucks. No one I encountered that day left unhappy. The experience taught me it’s the little things that can make the difference in someone’s life. Listen, smile, and be kind; not just on Thanksgiving, but everyday.
4) Don’t Wait: No one wants to go through life harboring regrets, but many of the guests I encountered that day were quite vocal about missed opportunities. If I had one more minute with them… If we could have spent one more Thanksgiving together… If I had only told my son how I felt... At sixteen years old, I had difficulty understanding these sentiments. Now as a wife, mother and social worker the fear of regret seems easier to comprehend. Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate how you feel about someone you love. Sometimes it’s hard to say, “I’m sorry.” As the holidays approach, use the opportunity to let your loved ones know the importance they have in your life. Don’t wait. Time is something that is never guaranteed.
5) Volunteer: I’m so grateful for the teacher I had in high school that promoted this community service project. She gave me an amazing opportunity that unknowingly shaped the trajectory of my life into the field of social work. I encourage everyone to find a charitable event or community service project to participate in this November. As a mom, I can’t wait to one day bring my daughters to serve Thanksgiving dinner in my community. I hope the experience will teach my children to appreciate family and how a single act of kindness can potentially change someone’s world.
Working with the UNICO Foundation so many years ago was one of the greatest experiences in my life. This Thanksgiving, turn off the cell phones and put the football on hold. Take the time to listen to those that surround your table. Be kind and don’t wait to tell someone you love and appreciate them. Treasure the time you have with your family and friends. Be grateful for all life’s blessings, both big and small. From the IlluminArt family to yours, we wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.
By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
As I write this, both of you are still in diapers. Your world revolves around naptime and animals crackers. Your dreams are filled with fairy dust and princess dresses. I love your innocence and treasure it. Mommy loves you both more than words could ever say. I do my best each and every day to keep you safe, but there will be a time where I must hand over that responsibility directly to you. It’s a scary proposition, but it’s part of life.
I want you to know your mommy isn’t perfect. I’ve made many mistakes throughout my life. I could choose to withhold these mistakes from you and in doing so, perhaps your opinion of me will remain somewhat untarnished. However, I believe as your mother; I owe it to you to be honest.
Your daddy was not my first love. When I was in high school, I met a boy who lit up my world. He was handsome and popular and he liked me, a lot. We became very close, very quickly. I wanted to be with him every second of every day. I began to distance myself from close friends, stopped participating in hobbies I had once enjoyed, and even began to treat my family badly. In retrospect, I guess I should have sensed something was wrong with my new love interest, but his good looks and charm were spellbinding.
The honeymoon phase of our relationship soon ended and we began to fight, mostly over the fact that I had a part time job, which he wanted me to quit. It was during one of these heated arguments that my prince charming became so enraged; he punched his fist through the front door of his family’s apartment. I was absolutely paralyzed with fear by his reaction. I had never seen someone become so angry over something that seemed so insignificant. He told me it was my fault that he had gotten so angry and I needed to “be better.” The fear of losing him consumed me, so I made every attempt to keep him happy. It was barely a week later when after another argument, your mommy became the door, and I was hit for the first time.
I wish I could tell you that I was brave and that I asked for help, but I didn’t. I stayed in the relationship. I became an expert make-up artist, covering up bruises like a professional cosmetologist. I began to lose weight from the stress of the violence, but I never talked about it to my teachers or friends. When your grandparents finally confronted me about what they thought was going on, I denied it and continued to see him.
Why? Why did mommy stay with someone who hurt her? The answer is simple, because mommy believed she didn’t deserve any better and no one else would ever love or want her. It may seem like a simple answer, but it’s one that is very common for women who have experienced domestic violence. My beautiful girls, I don’t want you to ever experience what mommy went through. Domestic violence is a serious issue. You need to know:
1) Domestic Violence Is Not Only Physical: During my relationship I was as equally emotionally abused as I was physically. In addition, most of the money I made from part time jobs went directly to my abuser. He controlled me physically, emotionally and financially.
2) Domestic Violence Is Common: When I finally did get help, I discovered many of my friends in high school had shared similar experiences. None of them sought help and therefore none of the cases were reported to my high school. Domestic violence is more common than most people believe or want to believe. Whatever statistics are available are believed to be low because domestic violence is often not reported.
3) Domestic Violence Knows No Boundaries: Mommy was an honor student and considered one of the smartest girls, but domestic abuse happened to me. Abuse can happen to anyone! It can be directed at women, men, children, and even the elderly. Domestic violence crosses all race and class lines. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or where you went to school; no one is immune to violence.
5) It’s Not Easy To Leave: I tried several times to leave the relationship, but I always went back to my abuser after dramatic apologies or receiving flowers. Victims of domestic violence often feel pressure or shame to stay in a relationship. Relationships are complicated and it’s never as simple as fighting back or walking out the door.
6) Victims Are Victims: After almost two years of abuse, a family friend and therapist intervened, helping me to understand the abuse had never been my fault. Using the legal system, I was able to leave the relationship and start the healing process. The abuser is always completely responsible for the abuse. No one can say or do anything that warrants being beaten and battered.
As you both become young women, know that you can come to me about anything. I may not have all the answers you need, but I will always be willing to listen to you with an open mind and an open heart. Remember that you are smart, kind and beautiful. Your father and I are doing our absolute best to raise you to be conscious participants in the world around you.
Every relationship that you will have in life will teach you something about yourself and prepare you for when you meet the person who you want to make a lifetime commitment to. I truly hope you find a partner in this world who will love and adore you the way I do. In the event you do encounter someone who mistreats or abuses you, remember what I have shared with you in this letter and know that you are braver than you think. Walk away. You, my girls, deserve all that is good in the world.
By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
September marks the beginning of a new school year for millions of children across the country. As our children begin to acclimate themselves to their new classroom environments, educators and parents are given the task of tackling the complex conversation surrounding the 9/11 anniversary, also called Patriot Day. Those of us who experienced the attacks first hand will undoubtedly be flooded with our own complicated mix of emotions. It doesn’t matter whether or not our children were old enough or even alive to remember the events of that tragic day. What does matter is how parents and educators work together to begin a conversation with our children that will leave them feeling both informed and safe.
1.) Open Communication: The beginning of the school year is an overwhelming time for parents, teachers and administration. Individual classroom teachers, more often than not, have discretion with regards to how they wish to present information relating to 9/11; unless the school itself has a curriculum already in place. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to reach out to parents via email with regards to the upcoming anniversary. This provides teachers the opportunity to discuss any planned classroom activities. It also allows parents the opportunity to respond to teachers and possibly inform them of any special circumstances that may arise. For example, if a child has had first hand experience with a 9/11 related death or illness, this information would be extremely beneficial to the classroom teacher and provides them with the opportunity to revise a planned activity or arrange for supportive services (i.e., school guidance counselor or social worker) if needed.
If parents do not receive any communication regarding classroom 9/11 activities or school curriculum, then they should take the initiative to reach out to their child’s teacher or school principal. With the use of technology, a classroom or school email is almost always available. Parents may also choose to contact the school’s guidance counselor, school social worker or school psychologist for more information. Collaborating and communicating simultaneously will provide both parents and educators an opportunity to bridge classroom and home learning. It also sets a precedent for the entire school year by promoting informative dialogue between parents and schools.
2.) Listen & Be Present: A child’s school and home environment offer a safe space for them to ask difficult questions about September 11th. Some children will be more active participants in the conversation, while others may be more reserved. Both reactions are common. Utilizing open ended questions, such as “What would you like to know about 9/11?” or “ Why do you think we remember the anniversary of September 11th?” are great starting points for teachers and parents. If the child was alive during the 9/11 attacks, adults may also approach the conversation based on the child’s own individual memories by asking, “What do you remember about that day?” Children should be allowed to guide the conversation based on their own curiosities, feelings or concerns. When responding to children, parents and teachers must be mindful to use age-appropriate language and respond in a sensitive, reassuring tone.
3.) Stick to the Facts: Parents and educators need to stick to the facts. Children absorb information from their surrounding sources. Friends, family and the media will all impact what each individual child thinks and feels about September 11th. For younger children, keep things simple and succinct. For example:
“On 9/11, people who didn’t like America wanted to hurt and scare us. They crashed four planes. Two of them struck two very large buildings in New York City called the World Trade Center. Another plane destroyed part of the Pentagon, the US military headquarters, in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Many people died and it is a very sad day for people all over the world.”
Elementary school children don’t possess adequate abstract thinking skills and many kids will ask how the planes were hijacked. Adults should answer by explaining the hijackers “tricked people” and utilize this opportunity to explain that since the attacks have occurred new rules have been made to make sure we are safe when we fly.
Middle and high school aged children have the developmental maturity to absorb information and then begin to process it. Provide them with the historic facts and allow them to incorporate their own thoughts and feelings into a deeper conversation. You don’t have to tackle the War on Terror with adolescents, but you should ensure they have the correct information.
4) Emphasize Safety & Security: As adults in children’s lives, it’s our job to promote a sense of safety and security. Whatever words teachers or parents choose to use to explain the story of 9/11, end it with the message that they don’t need to worry. Parents should also emphasize their role as protectors to help children understand the safety they feel in their home environment is uncompromised. Older children should be encouraged to take a more proactive approach. New York City’s “if you see something, say something” encourages citizens of all ages to take a more active role in their safety. Adults can discuss what security measures are in place with greater detail and discuss red flags middle schoolers and teens should be aware of.
5.) Limit the use of all Media: Developmentally, children under the age of 8 should have limited to no exposure to 9/11 television coverage or media images. Children this age or younger have difficulty deciphering what’s real from what’s not and it is quite possible they could misinterpret these images to believe the attacks were occurring again. Middle school children can be exposed to 9/11 media coverage, preferably with adult supervision, so parents or teachers should monitor and discuss what is being viewed. Children of this age are prone to curiosity and will want to see first hand what happened. Limit exposure to overly graphic images and videos on both television and the Internet. High school aged children have the mental capacity to understand the severity of the attacks and it’s political, social and historical ramifications. Some images may still be too graphic for this age group, monitoring remains necessary. It is not healthy for adults or children to become consumed with anniversary coverage. Know when to stop watching and be actively involved in ensuring that the information children are receiving is quality programming.
6.) Know Yourself & Respect Your Limits: Nobody expects a parent or a teacher to act as a licensed mental health professional. It’s perfectly okay to not have the answer to every question a child may have about 9/11. If you can’t answer something factually, then utilize the opportunity to search for the answer with the child together. If the topic of 9/11 becomes personally too intense for you to discuss it further or if a child exhibits an overly emotional reaction to what is being discussed, call in a professional. Educators can utilize the school support team, which usually includes the school guidance counselor, school social work or school psychologist. Parents can also reach out to their child’s school to utilize these services or seek counseling from a licensed mental health professional or clergy member.
7.) Emphasize Patriotism & Community Service: Kids need balance in their conversations about September 11th. 9/11 showed us that immense cruelty exists in this world, but in one of America’s darkest moments, we also saw unforgettable acts of compassion and heroism. The bravery and sacrifice of policemen, fireman, and first responders should all be discussed with children. Teachers and parents should also emphasize how perfect strangers, communities and the country as a whole came together in the aftermath of the attacks. Encourage kids to take on a community service activity, visit a local firehouse or police precinct, or perform a random act of kindness on this year’s anniversary to honor those whose lives were lost.
8.) Don’t Be An Ostrich: When an ostrich gets frightened, it buries its head in the sand. Pretending that the anniversary of 9/11 is just another day is wrong. Not only does it show our children that we are unable or unwilling to broach a difficult subject matter, but it forces them to look for answers elsewhere. It also diminishes the legacy of those we lost on that fateful day fourteen years ago. We, as adults, owe it to our children to provide them with the best explanation we can so that the significance of September 11th lives on within them.
By Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
In IlluminArt Productions’ play, “What Goes Around”, the opening scene portrays several students asking the question “What do you see when you look at me?” In a school setting, our outward appearances often cast an inaccurate shadow over the content of our character. Peers make assumptions based on how we look, what we wear and who we associate with. You’re the nerd, the fat kid, the jock, the cheerleader. Every kid has a label and whether or not that label is correct is anybody’s guess, unless you’re willing to actually take the time to get to know the person as an individual. Behavior such as this has been occurring since the dawn of puberty and sadly has led to the rampant rate of bullying that our nation’s schools are facing on a daily basis. But what happens when you’re an adult in this situation? How would you react? How would you cope with people judging you based solely on your appearance or in my case, my outwardly visible disability?
IlluminArt’s work has always resonated with me, but even more so since I became legally blind in 2012. I was born with perfect 20/20 vision. My husband still jokes that when I met him in the late 1990’s, I had “eagle eyes.” I could see a missing button off his shirt from half way across a room. I could find my car in the parking lot that was 8 rows over, 6 rows down and 40 feet away from me. I could tell you every color of leaves that fell off the tree in front of my house each fall. Then, like that, I had breast cancer and with chemotherapy came the need to use a cocktail of certain medications that I was explained “could possibly” impact my vision. By 2010, I had gone colorblind and was hospitalized for steroid treatments to try to prevent my optic nerves from detaching from my eyes. The good news was I had beat cancer; the bad news was I had another war to fight and it was just getting started.
Over the next two years I slowly began to lose vision in both my eyes. I had gone completely blind in my left eye and had 20/800 vision in my right. My color vision never returned or improved. I was left dangling between two worlds, the sighted and the blind. After registering for services with the New York State Commission for the Blind, I began taking daily living courses. I had to be taught how to cook again, how to cut vegetables, how to tell when meat was done. I had to label all my appliances and purchase some new items to help me function in my home. My phone didn’t just have caller id, it had the caller id equivalent to a big box super store on black Friday, loudly announcing who was calling and the number. Alarm clocks spoke. Timers rung. It seemed for as dark as the world had become over a matter of months, it got painfully louder. By far the hardest obstacle was mobility.
Ignorance about blindness is infinite. Blindness is not binary. You’re not either completely sighted or completely blind. There are countless ways to be classified as “legally blind.” How you see is dependent on your own situation. How you travel is also a personal choice. Blind people have 4 options: 1) White Cane 2) Guide Person 3) Guide Dog 4) Nothing. When someone loses their vision, white cane training is the first course of action. An instructor helps you use this tool to see your world differently. You have to learn how to hold the cane and how to move it to assess the information you need about where you are and where you want to go. Your cane becomes an extension of your arm, a necessary appendage to a degree, that is both helpful and extremely frustrating all at the same time. After about nine months of training, I had mastered the cane but even three years later, I have not mastered the reaction to it.
“What do you see when you look at me?” I was sitting in my chiropractic office, wearing dark glasses and using my cane when a mother came in with two beautiful little girls. I stared at them through my dark lenses, thinking they reminded me of my own two daughters, ages 2 and 7 months. I wondered if my own two little girls would resemble these adorable children when they got into elementary school.
I sat and waited for my appointment, listening to the mother of these two young girls start up a nervous conversation with another person in the waiting room. I could see the other patient glancing over at me. The girl’s mother began to fix her younger daughter’s hair and had her stand directly in front of her knees as she began to fuss over her numerous ribbons and bows. The younger girl looked at me then turned abruptly, hugging her mom. I could hear her whisper “I don’t want to look at that lady.”
My heart sunk. Was I that scary? Did dark glasses and a white cane make me a monster? I waited for the mother’s reply to which she whispered, “honey, she’s a poor soul.” Poor Soul? I couldn’t believe my ears. I wasn’t on some street corner peddling pencils out of an old tin can; I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to be seen. Poor Soul? Just then the doctor called me into exam room. I was so tense, livid. I didn’t want to correct another mother in front of her children. I didn’t want to make a valid point out of anger. I thought about just walking out of the office and not saying anything, but as I used my cane to head towards the office door, I decided to speak directly to the little girl that was so terrified of me.
Nervously, I introduced myself, “I’m sorry if you were scared when you saw me. I was looking at you and your sister because you remind me of my little girls.” The look of shock on both the little girl and her mother was immeasurable. “You have children?” the mother asked. I explained that I had two daughters and was admiring how lovely her children were. Just then the eldest child, who had remained quite quiet until this point blurted out, “but mommy, you said the lady was probably pretty lonely because blind people aren’t usually married or have kids.” I couldn’t help but look at the mother, although her face was blurred by my blindness, she was undoubtedly embarrassed by her daughter’s comments.
I had been judged, based solely on my appearance; dark glasses and a white cane. Perhaps more painful than that judgment, was the fact that this mother in her own naivety truly believed that this “poor soul” of a woman was incapable of experiencing any joy, love and perhaps education. I spent the next few minutes talking with the girls and their mom. I shared how I had lost my eyesight from cancer. I discussed some of the tools I used to help me function better in a darker world. I mentioned my husband, my daughters, and the fact that I had two masters’ degrees and worked with Illuminart. By the time we had finished talking, both children had held my cane and were very excited to tell their teachers that had met “a real nice blind lady.” Although I received no apology from their mom, I know she too learned an important lesson that day, not only about blind people, but also about judging others.
Looking back, I could have taken the easy way out. I could have bowed my head and just walked out of the doctor’s office to my husband and children who were waiting for me in the car that I will never drive again. However, I chose to use the situation as a forum to educate, not just the children, but their mom as well. When others look at me, I don’t want them to see a charity case. I don’t want their pity. I want them to know that I am a wife, mother, social worker, and a happy person that does not let my disability define me. Just like children, adults can let our own preconceived notions about others cloud our minds. We can pass those wrong messages onto our own kids. Try to view every person as an individual, with his or her own unique mind, body and spirit. If we can do that, then we can educate our children to be accepting of all people and remind them, that despite another’s disability, whether seen or unseen, our possibilities in life are indeed limitless.
*Licensed from Illusion Theater, Minneapolis, MN www.illusiontheater.org
by: Arlene Sorkin, MSW
Executive Producing Director, IlluminArt Productions
According to the National Crime Prevention Association, cyber bullying happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post texts or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person. More than 50% of all American teens have been a victim of cyber-bullying.
It is difficult to find statistics about how many younger children find themselves involved in cyber-bullying, whether as the victim or as a participant. Since I often have the opportunity to talk with groups of students in person, I conduct my own unscientific survey during the Q & A session following my group’s anti-bullying theater performances. I assumed I would get a few responses the first time I asked about 150 5th graders to raise their hands if they have a Facebook page. I was shocked to see about 80% of the hands in the room go up. My follow up question was, “How many of your parents know?” That only produced a few hands. Some said they used fake birthdates and some said a sibling set it up for them. Although our program shows scenarios about all forms of bullying, cyber-bullying dominates the discussions.
When my daughter was in middle school the scariest thing around was HIV/AIDS. I was a hospital social worker at the time so I took advantage of my daily experiences and brought home a story about a case every evening. The usual dinner conversation was about the teen who found out, after giving birth, that she was HIV+ or the guy who came in with a bad infection and found out that he had full-blown AIDS. These discussions about “somebody else” were not threatening or preachy in anyway, just a great opportunity to open the door to opinions and ways to prevent that from ever happening in our family – to talk about the consequences of unprotected sex. Now kids need to deal with the possibility of being preyed upon or tempted to prey upon others using their phones, computers, or tablets 24/7.
Not everyone has up close and personal experiences like mine but there are countless stories in the news that can spark a discussion. Kids may not watch the evening news but all of their social media outlets report tragic suicides blamed on relentless bullying. They definitely know what is going on. You can start a conversation by making it about your own reaction – “I was so troubled when I heard about so and so who apparently tried to take her life because of the things her so called friends wrote about her on Facebook. What do you think about that? How does it feel to hear that someone would do that? What could she have done before she did something so drastic? Who can you talk to if something like that ever happens to you? Do you know that we will not judge you if you get into some sort of trouble because of something you or someone you know said through texting or posting on-line, as long as you tell us?”
There are many websites that have definitions and suggestions if you Google “cyber-bullying”. I’ve learned the most from my discussions with students. We ask a lot of questions about what they know or don’t know. We talk about the consequences like losing friends forever because of something you wrote or something the other person perceived about what you wrote. We talk about hesitating and thinking for a second before you CHOOSE to push the letters on the keyboard that spell hurtful words. That yes, it is a CHOICE. You don’t have to push those letters. I tell them that my personal rule is to only write positive comments. My co-moderator talks about his experience as a camp director when he’s not working in schools. He explains that before he hires anyone, including counselors in training (age 13 & 14) or junior counselors (age 15 & 16), he does a thorough search on the internet, including their Facebook page, which he can usually find even if they don’t use their real name. If there is anything that is the least bit negative, he will not hire them. He also talks about how you think if you delete it, that it’s gone. It is there forever, somewhere in cyber space! How about having a conversation with someone in person about something that is bothering you? We also talk about how to do that.
Many of our students, in their post-performance evaluations, thank us for having open and honest discussions and feel they have learned a great deal. Kids are willing and able to engage in conversations about difficult topics like cyber-bullying if the door is held open.