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stacy cervenka

Why every blind person should apply to the 2019 Holman Prize

Holman Prize applications are open until February 28, 2019. Learn how to apply.

Being successful as a blind person is not about being a superhero. We often see images of people with disabilities atop mountains, creating beautiful things or connecting their community in big ways. But often the narrative is over-simplified to the exclusion of the real factors that got those people to where they are: research, planning, collaboration, humility and a whole host of other skills that maybe aren’t as glamorous as the idea of scaling a craggy peak on your own. But these are the real stories we want to hear.

Truly, every blind person has a dream and a set of proclivities, and the Holman Prize is about nurturing those passions and goals at every level. The prize does not reward superheroes; it rewards everyday people who can demonstrate a commitment to a project that is meaningful to them. That’s why, we believe, every blind person in the world should apply.

Apply in 2019

On January 15, 2019, applications open for the third annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, funded by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This prize awards up to $25,000 each to three blind individuals who wish to push their own limits and carry out a “dream” project of their own creation.

The Holman Prize is named for 19th century explorer James Holman (“the blind traveler”), who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, and the most prolific traveler of any person before the era of modern transportation.

Our inaugural prizewinners, Penny Melville-Brown, Ojok Simon and Ahmet Ustunel recently completed their year-long adventures. On November 29, they will be honored at our LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, where they will share their stories. Although their Holman year may be over, Penny, Ojok and Ahmet are determined to continue to push boundaries and change perceptions about blindness around the world.

The 2018 winners, Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernandez and Red Szell are just starting their Holman journeys. Each has already accomplished a great deal in the nascent days of their projects.

Stacy Cervenka: The Blind Travelers Network

Stacy is busy working with a website developer, web designer and business analyst on creating The Blind Travelers Network, an online community for blind people to crowdsource information about the accessibility of places they travel. Besides reviews, the website will allow people to communicate with each other and share their travel tips and stories through message boards and blogs. Stacy has been conducting focus groups with blind people to learn what features they would find useful on The Blind Travelers Network. She will be seeking people to test a beta version of the website towards the end of winter. The public rollout of the website will be in the spring.

Conchita Hernández: Changing lives in Mexico

Conchita will convene the first-ever blindness conference in Mexico run by blind people and registration is now open for “Cambiando Vidas” or Changing Lives, which takes place in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico from July 26-28, 2019. Conchita is currently contracting with teachers and exhibitors. The conference will have workshops for blind people, parents of blind children, and professionals in the blindness field. Conchita explains that in Mexico, sixty percent of blind children don’t have access to an education. With Cambiando Vidas, Conchita hopes to begin a systematic change by creating a community of people and more resources to help improve prospects for blind people in Mexico.

Red Szell: An extreme triathlon in Scotland

Red is training to complete an extreme triathlon that includes off-road biking, an ocean swim and climbing a 200-foot sea stack called Am Buachaille. Recently, Red and his climbing partner Matthew traveled to Sardinia where they began climbing Le Grand Mammut, a challenging, but less difficult rock climb that would help him train for Am Buachaille. Le Grand Mammut is about 500 feet high, but at 200 feet, Red, dehydrated and with a case of sunstroke, was forced to execute an emergency rappel down the cliff with Matthew. Red reflected on the failure to summit in his blog entry, “I needed a reminder that the sport I love is more than just a physical challenge. It’s about risk analysis, problem solving and above all, partnership.”

The six Holman Prizewinners come from varied experiences and backgrounds with projects that are vastly different. From academia, to art to athleticism, the Holman Prize welcomes pitches of all kinds. Starting January 15, it’s your turn to upload a 90-second video to YouTube and fill out the official Holman Prize application.

Want to know more and stay in touch? Visit holmanprize.org, follow the Holman Prize on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or send an email to holman@lighthouse-sf.org to be subscribed to the Holman Prize mailing list.

Meet Stacy Cervenka, creating an online community for blind travelers with the Holman Prize

Holman Prize LogoSince 2017, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has presented the Holman Prize, which funds the ambitions of three blind individuals. One of the 2018 prizewinners is Stacy Cervenka, from Lincoln, NE, USA. Stacy’s Holman Prize ambition is to research, develop and launch a “blind Yelp” of sorts, called the Blind Travelers Network. Similar to TripAdvisor or Cruise Critic, the site would give blind individuals crowdsourced knowledge about the accessible places and services that they can’t currently access anywhere else. 

“If we go to a resort in Jamaica because they have scuba diving, we’re not protected by the ADA there, so what do we do if we get there and they don’t let us dive?”

These are the questions that keep Stacy Cervenka awake at night. And they’re not just anxiety dreams: they’re real questions that she confronts every time she travels.

“The ADA doesn’t cover Jamaica,” she offered, over the phone last week, “it doesn’t cover Europe or Canada. Canada is just developing it’s disability laws now. If you travel somewhere where you’re not protected, and someone tells you can’t get on the bus – you can’t get on the bus.”

Stacy, who lives with her family in Lincoln, Nebraska, is quite good at painting a mental picture: a blind family, eager to see the world, cut short by a society that doesn’t understand their needs, or worse, their capabilities. As a blind person, once you start imagining all the ways your trip could go wrong, it’s a bit of a downward spiral. But on the flip side – where does a blind person go to have the time of their life? Also a valid question.

This is why Stacy hatched a new idea to meet a need that, oddly, hasn’t been met yet: the Blind Travelers Network. Think Yelp, Trip Advisor, or Cruise Critic – but designed for the betterment of a population who wants one thing, more than anything else: information.

Stacy grew up in a place where community was everything. Raised on the suburban outskirts of Chicago, she was a blind girl, but she was also the oldest sibling in a family that trusted her implicitly.

“We were the ultimate latchkey kids,” she explains. With a father who was a harbormaster and a mother who worked nurse shifts until 11 p.m., it was common for Stacy and her little siblings to spend entire days taking care of themselves: cooking dinner, hanging out with friends, playing in the neighborhood, and only seeing their parents for a few minutes at bedtime.

These were neighborhoods with big block parties, neighbors that watched out for each other, and fire departments that would crack open hydrants on hot summer days. But despite the nostalgic memories, Stacy acknowledges that something major was missing.

“Looking back, I really wish that I had more exposure to blind kids and successful blind adults. My relationship with my family was mostly normal, we all competed in sports, did a lot of the same activities, and spent a lot of time together because our parents worked a lot – but I think I would have had a lot more confidence if I had had exposure to other blind kids and successful blind adults.”

Nonetheless, Stacy developed a passion for travel, and by the time she was a young adult, had traversed the country several times, getting to know its diverse climates, people and cultures. She found beauty and adventure in Wyoming, idyllic summer lodges in the Midwest and Florida.

One thing nagged at her all along, though, frustrating because she had no power over it. What if, on all her travels, she was missing something? Not the visual information that most sighted people would assume she desired, but rather, the accessibility that blind people so deeply deserved; the hospitality that all travelers deserve; the sheer immersive experience, regardless of the level of her sight. She wanted a way to optimize her adventures.

“When my husband and I were first dating in DC,” she remembers, “he wanted to set up a date at a horseback riding place. He set it up, paid for it, and when we go there they didn’t let us ride. We went there really excited to have a romantic date.”

There wasn’t much they could do. “They didn’t know about the law – so the law didn’t matter,” she says. “You can’t call the cops and they’ll show up and handcuff them. The only way to enforce it is to get legal advocacy, and that stinks.” Lawsuits, she says, are not the best end to a romantic first date, for anyone: “We didn’t want to have to fight the system.”

Stacy also knew a review on a mainstream website wouldn’t do her or blind travelers any good. In fact she knew: a blind person wanting to ride horses would only get shouted down: “I could have written something on Yelp or someplace, but you would just get people saying ‘they’re just worried about your safety!’”

Soon she and her husband were married, and planning a honeymoon. Again, Stacy found herself scouring travel sites, like a tortured detective, unable to find the exact clues she needed. “I learned a ton on Cruise Critic!” she insists, “but I still had a ton of blindness-specific questions. You just can’t get those answered on there.”

Two years ago, Stacy took her family to Disney World. This time, she took to Facebook, sourcing a wealth of great information from blind friends and others who knew about accessibility and also had a healthy appreciation for Disney theme parks. And yet, she knew the thread would be lost to the sands of time, couldn’t be easily archived and tagged. This was Information that other blind parents could use “about how to get around, how to manage transportation, how to navigate, how to keep track of our children at the pool,” and nit wasn’t available to those who might need it later. “I just wanted a place for us all to be able to share that.”

The Blind Travelers Network (BTN), she hopes, will provide an answer to this problem, and build a strong new community at the same time. “The goal is that blind people will come to the site and share information about places they’ve been, and ask questions about places they want to go. It’s that simple. It’s not so much about being positive or negative, it’s about being accurate.”

Much like other online communities, though, Stacy knows that she can seed some contributions here and there, but much of the work is in mobilizing the blind internet through social media, word of mouth and other savvy marketing strategies. “It’s only going to be a useful resource if lots of us write reviews. You can still get information about the goulash or the bread pudding on Yelp – BTN is meant to be a site where people can go to get information that they can’t get anywhere else.”

As a founder of the site, Stacy is creating a platform based on her own lived experience, drawing from her travels, struggles and successes to know what works and what doesn’t. “My goal is to create something that I would use myself,” she says. “The Holman Prize will allow me to create something that I’ve always wished existed.”

“In increasing number, blind people understand that fully living in the world also mean fully participating in the richness of travel and recreation,” said Bryan Bashin, CEO of the Lighthouse in San Francisco.  “Right now blind people had no effective online way to benefit from each others’ experience when it comes to finding unusual accessible opportunities or preparing for accessibility challenges. Thanks to Stacy’s work soon we will be able to better prepare for our next adventures.”

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Conchita Hernández and Red Szell.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners

Support The Holman Prize

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2019 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.