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On Prizes and Partnerships: What’s New at LAB

Vacuums are great when you’re conducting chemistry experiments or perhaps cleaning your rug. But everyone knows that people, and especially agencies, cannot operate in them and remain successful. In fact, one of LAB’s most compelling strengths is our willingness to collaborate with a wide variety of individuals, agencies and educational institutions in Greater Lowell. In March, we received recognition of this quality by being awarded the first annual 2014 Service Learning Community Partner Award from UMass Lowell. Our executive director, Elizabeth Cannon, sat down with Jim Barrett to discuss this accomplishment on a recent Talking Information Center broadcast.

During their conversation, Elizabeth talked about LAB’s outward-looking mindset. Our partnerships in Lowell stretch back for many years. One way to network with the community happens at a UMass Lowell breakfast, where decision-makers from local nonprofits have an opportunity to meet with faculty members who have students looking to get internship experiences in the area. The breakfast’s “speed dating” format gives everyone a chance to have brief conversations with many people. Then there is a larger block of time allocated for more in-depth conversations. It is at events such as this that the university’s instructors have gotten a chance to learn about the variety of exciting internship and volunteer opportunities available at our agency. As a direct result, several very productive relationships have evolved between our staff and promising young people in the community. In honor of that, Elizabeth proudly accepted the first annual 2014 Service Learning Community Partner Award.

“It was so amazing to get the award when there are so many wonderful nonprofits that work in the Greater Lowell area and to be recognized for our work with the students,” she enthused. “We get a lot of support from the students and it’s nice to be recognized, that the students realize that they had a good experience here.”

If you have served as a volunteer at LAB or visited us as a client or while attending a board meeting, you may have seen or met some of our many amazing student interns who have graced us with their presence over the years. Some have come from Middlesex Community College and done service learning projects. They have assisted us with mailings, have worked with both our adult and youth clients and have even helped us enhance the use of our office space. This semester, a student has taken on the project of assembling our long-neglected library.

UMass Lowell has also been the source of many student partners, coming to us from a wide variety of disciplines including business, writing, assistive technology, English and psychology. Some of the young people are paid through the university, with their work here becoming an actual paid position. (Our IT and youth program specialist, Sal, is just one example.) In addition, a recent group of students from a UMass Lowell Disability in Literature class got the opportunity to each read on the radio for an hour.

Another source of interns is the Mass. Commission for the Blind, which has been running a program to give high school and college students real world work experiences for the past ten years. “It’s been a great resource for us and a good partnership between MCB and the Lowell Association for the Blind,” Elizabeth stated.

The beauty of doing an internship at LAB comes, in part, from the fact that we are a small business in our own right. In addition to direct service experience with clients, we also offer students a chance to work on business and technology-related projects. In most cases, students will find that their career path will not focus on blindness and vision loss. Nevertheless, an internship at LAB can furnish them with a rich foundation of skills upon which they can build in virtually any career. And it is for that reason, perhaps more than any other, that we were the first recipients of this award.

While it is true that most students will not use LAB as a springboard to a bright future in the field of blindness and visual impairment, there is an exception to every rule. In this instance, her name is Allyson (Ally) Bull. Ally spoke to Jim Barrett about her evolution as a student and her experiences as a UMass Lowell intern here at LAB. Judging by Elizabeth’s effusive praise, she has been an amazing success: “She’s been terrific to work with. Everybody here that she helps out with the adult program, her commitment, her dedication, you ask her to do anything she’s amazing, she’s helpful, she’s got a great personality, and she’s always upbeat and positive. She just dives right in and jumps in to help everybody. So I know she’ll be successful when she goes on to graduate school. She has already started learning Braille here in anticipation of her Braille classes, so I think she’s going to be a terrific help in this field of work.”

Let’s back up just a bit and learn a little more about the young woman who is the recipient of such well-deserved praise. She grew up in Methuen with her two younger brothers and graduated from Methuen High School. While in high school, she was very involved in band activities and was a member of Dirty Hands Inc., an audition-only ensemble somewhat like Blue Man Group that specialized in improvisational music with nontraditional instruments, including bucket drums and brooms. After graduating in 2010, Ally went on to UMass Lowell, where she immediately began taking psychology courses.

Now that four years have flown by and Ally is a senior, she has gotten the chance to focus more on the advanced classes that interest her. “It’s been getting a lot better now that I’ve been working in higher level classes and getting more involved with the class instead of having a teacher just regurgitate information,” she explained. Nevertheless, her studies have not stopped her from sharing her love of music with others. Although she is no longer performing with an ensemble, she and several friends are heavily involved in WUML, UMass Lowell’s radio station. Ally has two shows of her own, each featuring four DJ’s and each playing its own style of eclectic and folk music respectively.

Somehow, Ally has managed to juggle her responsibilities at the radio station with an outside Market Basket job, as well as her all-important classroom work. In the fall of 2013 as her senior year began, she was presented with a list of various potential practicum sites, one of which was LAB. “I saw Lowell Association for the Blind and it really just popped out to me immediately. . . “One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was here talking to Christie about working with the adult program.” That semester, she racked up 95 hours of work with our adult and youth programs.

For most students, this would have been the end, a job well-done. But Ally was just getting started. Over those months of direct service and careful self-examination, Ally began to realize that this was much more than a three-month stint; indeed, it was the springboard for her future career. She seamlessly transitioned from intern to volunteer, demonstrating her commitment to the agency and our clients by going so far as to modify her class schedule to enable her to spend time in the adult program on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I love all the clients, I really do,” she says with feeling. “I love spending time with them and seeing them happy going shopping at Trader Joe’s like we did today is awesome. It’s a lot of fun to spend time with them. They’re a great group of people and they’ve taught me a lot about the field.”

Enough that she wants to make a career out of it. When Ally recognized that her future goals were becoming clear, she spoke to several LAB clients and staff, who pointed her toward UMass Boston’s Vision Studies program. Since she is particularly interested in working with visually impaired and blind children of all ages, she applied to and was accepted into the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) track. Once she has been licensed and has received her degree, Ally will be qualified to work with children from pre-school age through high school in the school districts or in a collaborative setting such as the Perkins School for the Blind. She loves the flexibility and diversity this job will entail. It will be no boring desk job; instead, she will do a great deal of traveling and will work with a cross-section of blind and visually impaired kids.

Spend even a few seconds with Ally and you can’t miss her enthusiasm about her future: “I’m very excited about it and I’m glad that everyone here is sharing my excitement with me. . . I really look forward to getting more involved in the field and continuing my work here at Lowell Association for the Blind.”

Ally isn’t the only one who is looking forward to this amazing future. We feel so fortunate to have her as part of our big extended family; we thank her for all of her dedication and amazing work; and, most of all, we’re thrilled that blind and visually impaired kids will be taught by someone who will treat each of them with equal measures of respect and challenge, and will help each student embrace his or her greatest potential.

Suzanne Wilson

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