Tag Archive

travel

Baking Blind: How Penny Melville-Brown changed perceptions about disability by cooking across six continents

Belgian-born chef and entrepreneur Noam Kostucki summed up 2017 Holman Prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown like this: “She’s bonkers. She’s completely mad.” This from a man running a restaurant in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle — but he meant it as a compliment. And for those who know Penny, it’s pretty much spot on.

Penny has big ideas and the gumption to carry them out — there’s no stopping her once she puts her mind to something. The woman has fortitude, military-learned logistics skills and an uncanny ability to connect with everyone she meets and put them immediately at ease.

From the onset, Penny’s Holman prizewinning project looked to be the one with least risk involved (compared to tending killer bees and solo-kayaking a highly trafficked shipping channel). Her plan was to leave her home in the green, port-side town of Fareham, UK and travel to six continents over the course of one year. Along the way she stopped in Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States, and met with chefs, other blind people and community leaders all over the world. She traveled with her nephew Toby Melville-Brown who documented her whirlwind world tour in a video blog series, Baking Blind.

“Some people were tentative and quite cagey before I showed up,” she says. “As soon as we were cooking together, they forgot I was blind. Then it was just two people sharing an experience together. Usually they had something simple in mind that they wanted to cook and I bullied them into doing something much more interesting.”

The risks of cooking seemed minimal to an experienced baker like herself— a burned wrist here, a nicked finger there — and yet somehow Penny’s project was the one with the most sturm und drang. Penny’s tour was met with much more intrigue than she had planned— coming face-to-face with Tropical Storm Nate in Costa Rica, a visa-related marooning in China, an air-sea rescue in Australia, to name a few. But Penny took it all in stride, and embraced the uncertainties as an unavoidable and rich part of her journey.

“As I crisscrossed continents and connected with people in vastly different cultures, I became even more convinced that something like this needed to be done,” she says. “There is very little media coverage of a blind person interacting with the rest of the world as an equal —  an ordinary person, who is really keen on something, operating as an equal with others around the world.”

Penny has a special connection with the namesake of the Holman Prize, James Holman, a 19th Century world traveler known as the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe. Both became blind while serving in the British Royal Navy (albeit nearly 200 years apart). Penny served for 22 years in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Royal Navy, reaching the rank of commander. She was also the first woman to hold the position of naval barrister. After being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1999, she created her business Disability Dynamics to help other people with disabilities find employment.

“The majority of disabled people acquire their disabilities during their working lives, as they’re growing up or while they’re working,” she says. “If you’ve build yourself the strength of character motivation, optimism, determination, those skills will take you through life’s challenges of any sort, like acquiring a disability or getting a job.”

So much of Penny’s work focuses not only on changing the minds of people with disabilities themselves, but changing widespread public perceptions about disability. And when asked to identify the highlights of her Baking Blind tour, it’s the small human connections that Penny pinpoints — the ones that ripple out into the collective psyche to help evolve peoples’ understanding of what it means to be disabled.

Her favorite moment was cooking with two 20-year-old women in China, who didn’t even know how to hold a knife — and how quickly they formed a bond and began helping each other, growing more confident with each passing moment. Or wending her way through the bush and scrubland of Kiama, Australia with an Aboriginal chef as a guide to show them which plants were edible. Or even cooking deep in the jungle of Costa Rica with Chef Noam during a tropical storm and being forced to improvise due to the ironic lack of running water.

But the end of Penny’s journey around the world didn’t turn out quite as she had expected. During a visit to France just before Christmas to explore new cooking opportunities, Penny almost died in a serious car accident where she fractured several vertebrae in her neck and broke multiple ribs and her sternum. She spent two months in intensive care and was put into an induced coma for five weeks.

Penny says, “The breathing tubes stopped me talking so communicating with the French medical team was a challenge for all of us and even more complicated by my blindness. When you’re blind and in intensive care, and trying to communicate in a foreign language, it’s not easy. I had a whole vocabulary of sound effects that I used to communicate with the nurses.”

It was an incredibly trying time for Penny and her loved ones, but Penny fought hard — facing her rehabilitation head-on, and recovering much faster than her doctors anticipated.

“When you’ve already overcome significant life challenges, you’re an old hand at it,” she says.

And though Penny still has some recovery to do, she’s hard at work producing Baking Blind videos that she and Toby shot while traveling all over the world for the Holman Prize. She’s also working on a cookbook using recipes and ideas from her world travels.

The strange lesson in all of Penny’s adventures is that the most serious mishap occurred not while she was stuck in muddy, pockmarked roads during a downpour in Costa Rica, or eating unfamiliar foods in the villages in Malawi — but while she was driving in a taxi in a major European metropolis. It goes to show that risk is unavoidable, and Penny would tell you there’s no use holding back from the things you want to seek out in the world.

“Life is all about taking risks,” says Penny. “And we survive to tell the tale.”

In little more than a month, Penny will again return to San Francisco to regale attendees at the LightHouse Gala about her accomplishments and discoveries during her year-long adventure funded by the Lighthouse’s Holman Prize.

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

How vs. Why: Advice from a Blind Filmmaker

 

LightHouse Interpoint is our new literary supplement, featuring written work by some of the world’s most interesting and engaged individuals who are blind or have low vision. Read our submission guidelines here.

The world of a visual storyteller is a world of promises and challenges: how to find the best shot; how to capture the best shot; how to get back to the studio without accidentally erasing the best shot. And as you can imagine, when people see my white cane, they want to know more than ever about these promises and challenges. Above all, they want to know, how do you do it?

What they don’t immediately understand is that I’ve had the good fortune to see some remarkable sights, from the sun rising over the white sands of a New Mexican desert to the moon over El Capitan. I’ve seen the joy on the face of a marathon runner breaking the tape at the finish line, and the anguish of a parent steering her child through another round of chemotherapy. I’ve been a reporter, a photographer, an editor and a filmmaker my whole life, and I can hardly remember a time where I’ve worked more than a few feet from the lens of a camera.

Michael Schwartz holds a camera

Beyond all the day-to-day challenges and promises of visual storytelling, though, filmmakers all face a more important question, the question of not how but why. I can weave those shots together, but why do it unless the story makes the viewer feel something? Continue reading How vs. Why: Advice from a Blind Filmmaker

My First Convention: National Federation of the Blind’s Annual Convention

Of the nearly twenty of us assembled at SFO airport, some had been attending these types of conferences for decades, some only a few years, while others had never even stepped foot on an airplane. It was the 4th of July, and many questions surrounded the group of about a dozen visually impaired teenagers were mulling over as they got ready to take off for a week at their first-ever convention of blind individuals.

The LightHouse youth group, led by fearless leader Jamey Gump, represented a broad mix of backgrounds and experiences. They ranged from age 16 to 20, some attending public school while others were enrolled at the California School for the Blind in Fremont. Among them were aspiring lawyers, tech trainers, musicians and writers. They all hailed from California — everywhere from the foggy Sunset of San Francisco, the inner city of Sacramento, to the Southern Californian suburbs. Some had been preparing since early childhood for imminently changing vision; taking braille lessons and learning blindness skills in tandem with all the other studies of growing up. Others appeared to be less acclimated, perhaps a little less confident with their status as a blind person, though they all had some common qualities as well. They were the adventurous, the open-minded; the teens and young adults willing to fly all the way across the country to find out what it meant to be a part of a growing, global community of blind individuals.

Jamey Gump takes the LightHouse youth to conferences and events all year round, and so this summer he chose to bring the group to the National Federation of the Blind’s Annual Convention, The week-long affair is the largest of its kind, and carries with it a staunch political agenda, emphasizes fierce independence, and works to instill pride in its members. With almost 3,000 attendees, the convention — like so many conventions — can be experienced on multiple levels, whether it’s simply wandering from room to room, sailing through the sea of white canes and dogs, or engaging critically with the policy and membership activities the organization has to offer. Some people, it seems, are simply there to party, taking advantage of the affordable opportunity to kick back in an environment where, instead of being viewed as an outlier or an oddity, they blend in perfectly. That, to many, is an oasis to look forward to every year. Jamey’s group members, though, were there as students.

Disembarking at the massive Orlando airport, even at 1 a.m., the humidity is the first thing that gets your attention. There’s something heavy and urgent about it, pushing you towards the indoors, into the haven of air-conditioned environments built not just for shelter, but total habitation. It was immediately obvious that no one would be leaving the hotel. But for the ensuing week, there was almost no reason to step outside the doors of the Rosen Center anyway.

For starters, there were seminars, speeches, and official business that introduced our students to a whole new world of education, tools, attitudes, and advocacy that they never knew existed. In one room, the makers of the KNFB Reader demonstrated how to read any print book out loud with a simple app on your phone. In another room, musicians and performing arts professionals gathered to share their resources. These were everyone from old school piano tuners to production professionals preaching the merits of ProTools. In still other exhibit halls all along the gargantuan hotel, divisions of young lawyers, educators, and students each met to discuss the topics that motivated them and propelled them forward. Depending on their unique interests, our students were able to pick and choose the seminars which excited them most — to see what it would take to become a teacher, an artist, or an attorney.

Up the escalators and across the catwalk to another building was the Independence Market. A trade show for tools, tech, and even apparel revolving around adaptation and blindness, this is where you could find blind folks wandering like kids in a candy store throughout the week. Here you could browse all the various reading tools, special earbuds and headphones, hi-tech and low-tech alike. Jamey walked out with a t-shirt printed with the blithe public service announcement: “Keep Calm, It’s Just A Cane.”

Starting Wednesday and throughout the following three days, the entire convention met in the grand ballroom. Those talks had a much more unifying tone, seeking to deliver big messages and shore up any doubts that the blindness community is a powerful and influential one. Our youth diligently sat through hours of lecturing, three days in a row, taking in speeches by everyone from Google futurist Ray Kurzweil, new NFB President Mark Riccobono, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, and Target.com Vice President Alan Wizemann.

Then came Serena Olsen, who was closer in age to any of us than probably most people on the stage. Olsen was asked to speak to tell her story of not only living abroad and taking blindness international, but about doing it as a member of the Peace Corps. Olsen has spent the last year in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet nation in central Asia known mostly in the West for its place on the global “Least Developed Countries” list. Olsen has been living, working, and teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, redefining her own sense of herself as a blind person as she faces each new obstacle (which you can read about in detail on her blog, Blind Broad Abroad). She also brought along Hayot, a young lady from Kyrgyzstan for whom she was able to fund a summer in America. Hayot is currently working as a counsellor at Enchanted Hills Camp; more on that later.

These speeches were the types of powerful experiences you’d never get in everyday life. In addition to these “big room” experiences, the LightHouse also made sure to arrange some special “small room” experiences of our own. That meant a networking dinner with a select group of mentors: rockstars like Hoby Wiedler who’s earning his PhD in chemistry and leads wine tastings at Francis Ford Coppola Winery; or disability rights attorney Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School, who recently introduced President Obama at the White House. Talking one-on-one to these peers and role models made a huge impact on the teenagers, and showed them not only that there are great blind people out in the world, but that they also are interested and engaged with the what young people have to say, ready to exchange advice on a peer level.

As one of our students in the youth group put it after the convention, “It made me feel like a part of something, much bigger than just a blind kid: a blind kid that was part of a blind family that is spread throughout the country. Being in an environment where there are over 2,000 blind people was a new experience for me; that felt very different from a normal day in San Francisco.”

To reach youth leader Jamey Gump, or to sign up for our Youth Events List, email jgump@lighthouse-sf.org.

Email the author at wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.

My First Convention

Jamey Gump, Bryan Bashin and the LightHouse youth group, dressed up for a banquet

Of the nearly twenty of us assembled at SFO airport, some had been attending these types of conferences for decades, some only a few years, while others had never even stepped foot on an airplane. It was the 4th of July, and I couldn’t help but wonder if on our way to Florida there’d be fireworks popping just outside of the plane window. It was these and other idle questions that the group of about a dozen visually impaired teenagers were mulling over as they got ready to take off for a week at their first-ever convention of blind individuals.

The LightHouse youth group, led by fearless leader Jamey Gump, represented a broad mix of backgrounds and experiences. They ranged from age 16 to 20, some attending public school while others were enrolled at the California School for the Blind in Fremont. Among them were aspiring lawyers, tech trainers, musicians and writers. They all hailed from California — everywhere from the foggy Sunset of San Francisco, the inner city of Sacramento, to the Southern Californian suburbs. Some had been preparing since early childhood for imminently changing vision; taking braille lessons and learning blindness skills in tandem with all the other studies of growing up. Others appeared to be less acclimated, perhaps a little less confident with their status as a blind person, though they all had some common qualities as well. They were the adventurous, the open-minded; the teens and young adults willing to fly all the way across the country to find out what it meant to be a part of a growing, global community of blind individuals.

Jamey Gump takes the LightHouse youth to conferences and events all year round, and so this summer he chose to bring the group to the National Federation of the Blind’s Annual Convention, The week-long affair is the largest of its kind, and carries with it a staunch political agenda, emphasizes fierce independence, and works to instill pride in its members. With almost 3,000 attendees, the convention — like so many conventions — can be experienced on multiple levels, whether it’s simply wandering from room to room, sailing through the sea of white canes and dogs, or engaging critically with the policy and membership activities the organization has to offer. Some people, it seems, are simply there to party, taking advantage of the affordable opportunity to kick back in an environment where, instead of being viewed as an outlier or an oddity, they blend in perfectly. That, to many, is an oasis to look forward to every year. Jamey’s group members, though, were there as students.

Disembarking at the massive Orlando airport, even at 1 a.m., the humidity is the first thing that gets your attention. There’s something heavy and urgent about it, pushing you towards the indoors, into the haven of air-conditioned environments built not just for shelter, but total habitation. It was immediately obvious that no one would be leaving the hotel. But for the ensuing week, there was almost no reason to step outside the doors of the Rosen Center anyway.

For starters, there were seminars, speeches, and official business that introduced our students to a whole new world of education, tools, attitudes, and advocacy that they never knew existed. In one room, the makers of the KNFB Reader demonstrated how to read any print book out loud with a simple app on your phone. In another room, musicians and performing arts professionals gathered to share their resources. These were everyone from old school piano tuners to production professionals preaching the merits of ProTools. In still other exhibit halls all along the gargantuan hotel, divisions of young lawyers, educators, and students each met to discuss the topics that motivated them and propelled them forward. Depending on their unique interests, our students were able to pick and choose the seminars which excited them most — to see what it would take to become a teacher, an artist, or an attorney.

Up the escalators and across the catwalk to another building was the Independence Market. A trade show for tools, tech, and even apparel revolving around adaptation and blindness, this is where you could find blind folks wandering like kids in a candy store throughout the week. Here you could browse all the various reading tools, special earbuds and headphones, hi-tech and low-tech alike. Jamey walked out with a t-shirt printed with the blithe public service announcement: “Keep Calm, It’s Just A Cane.”

Starting Wednesday and throughout the following three days, the entire convention met in the grand ballroom. Those talks had a much more unifying tone, seeking to deliver big messages and shore up any doubts that the blindness community is a powerful and influential one. Our youth diligently sat through hours of lecturing, three days in a row, taking in speeches by everyone from Google futurist Ray Kurzweil, new NFB President Mark Riccobono, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, and Target.com Vice President Alan Wizemann.

Then came Serena Olsen, who was closer in age to any of us than probably most people on the stage. Olsen was asked to speak to tell her story of not only living abroad and taking blindness international, but about doing it as a member of the Peace Corps. Olsen has spent the last year in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet nation in central Asia known mostly in the West for its place on the global “Least Developed Countries” list. Olsen has been living, working, and teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, redefining her own sense of herself as a blind person as she faces each new obstacle (which you can read about in detail on her blog, Blind Broad Abroad). She also brought along Hayot, a young lady from Kyrgyzstan for whom she was able to fund a summer in America. Hayot is currently working as a counsellor at Enchanted Hills Camp; more on that later.

These speeches were the types of powerful experiences you’d never get in everyday life. In addition to these “big room” experiences, the LightHouse also made sure to arrange some special “small room” experiences of our own. That meant a networking dinner with a select group of mentors: rockstars like Hoby Wiedler who’s earning his PhD in chemistry and leads wine tastings at Francis Ford Coppola Winery; or disability rights attorney Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School, who recently introduced President Obama at the White House. Talking one-on-one to these peers and role models made a huge impact on the teenagers, and showed them not only that there are great blind people out in the world, but that they also are interested and engaged with the what young people have to say, ready to exchange advice on a peer level.

As one of our students in the youth group put it after the convention, “It made me feel like a part of something, much bigger than just a blind kid: a blind kid that was part of a blind family that is spread throughout the country. Being in an environment where there are over 2,000 blind people was a new experience for me; that felt very different from a normal day in San Francisco.”

To reach youth leader Jamey Gump, or to sign up for our Youth Events List, email jgump@lighthouse-sf.org.

Email the author at wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.