by Jamie Allison
From the Editor: Jamie Allison is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, the president of the Cherokee County chapter, the coordinator of their recently concluded BELL program, and, from what I can tell, a delightfully well-organized human being who believes that good organization can maximize one’s enjoyment of our convention and has taken the time to share some of her tips. Here is what she says:
I was proud to represent my local chapter and my state at the 2014 National Convention, celebrating the 74th anniversary of the Federation’s founding, this year in Orlando, Florida. I was encouraged to submit a request for the Jernigan Scholarship and was honored to receive it. I also had the mentorship of several experienced Federationists who have attended national conventions in the past. I learned an immense amount of information during convention on a variety of subjects, but more importantly, I learned more about my own potential as a blind person. I often thought about and even dreamed of attending a national convention in the years prior to my attendance in 2014. Now that this dream has been realized, I want to share some of what I learned with the next class of rookies.
First, accept from the beginning that you can't possibly do it all. I found that, even with meticulous preplanning and prioritizing, there is no way to do everything that is available. Begin studying the agenda once it has been released. It will take several readings in order to get a feel for the choices you will be making. I would also advise making an individualized itinerary. I did this with a simple Microsoft Word document containing the times and locations for the events that I felt were most important. Later I Brailled an abbreviated hard copy of this information to carry with me. This made things a bit simpler for me because I didn't have to consult the entire agenda to refresh my memory on when and where my priority events would be.
Think of your itinerary as a fluid plan. Give yourself the flexibility to adjust it as needed. Items that don't seem interesting at first may become more inviting after hearing about someone else's experience with them once you're at the convention. You may also find that some of the ones you thought were good choices may not be as good after all. Look for the ones with repeat sessions and schedule them around the ones that don't repeat.
Have a place to keep all of your materials for the convention within easy reach. I created a Dropbox folder for electronic files of agendas, itineraries, and other information. I also kept my Braille agenda and a folder with hard copies of such documents in one place in my hotel room. I did not have to take every document to every event, but having one place to store them made it much easier to put my hands on them when needed.
You will definitely want some sort of bag to carry things from one event to another. Thankfully, tote bags were a frequent free item. Some of the state affiliates sold small drawstring backpacks in the exhibit hall. I bought one to use during the week and noticed a lot of other people doing the same thing.
Plan ahead for what you need to pack. Casual clothing will get you through the better part of the week, but you do need to dress appropriately for the banquet. Don't forget to bring a swimsuit if you plan to go to the pool. Towels and linens are usually provided, so concentrate on the other things you will need. Remember to leave some room in your suitcase in case you do any shopping, either at the exhibit hall or away from the convention. UPS boxes were also sold in the exhibit hall. I found that to be very helpful because I sent some of the bulkier items home that way, rather than putting them into my luggage. However, I did have to remember to drop it off at a designated time and place before I left.
You also need to consider the fatigue factor. The convention is more like a marathon than a sprint, especially if you plan to be there from seminar day through the banquet. Try to get extra rest in the week or two prior to the convention, and allow yourself a couple of recovery days afterward if you can. If you are not directly responsible for overseeing the travel, try to get some sleep while en route and as you go home. Don't forget to plan some blocks of time when you can relax during convention week. If you are the type of person who needs a break from the crowded meeting rooms, elevators, and restaurants, plan some times when you can be by yourself for a few minutes. Bring lunch up to your hotel room or better yet, make a trip to a nearby store and grab items you can use for impromptu meals once you're there. This is a much less expensive option than buying all your meals at the hotel, as well as providing an opportunity for a break for yourself. Make use of the pool area and exercise facilities in between or after meetings. This is very important to help balance the amount of time you spend sitting in one place. As contrary as this idea may seem, this will actually help keep you from feeling the fatigue as badly.
I would also advise you to be mindful of your sleep schedule. It is hard to turn down the request for a late-night visit with a friend you just met or to cut the conversation short if you're doing some networking. If you are one of those fortunate souls with a high energy level and can function on a handful of hours sleep for a few consecutive nights, you'll most likely be fine—maybe a little frazzled by the last day or two. For those of us who have medical conditions that affect rate of fatigue, it is vitally important that we pay attention to what our body is telling us. You may have to pare down some of the items on your itinerary or leave the evening's activities before you're really ready, but it would be no fun to spend the last couple of days stuck in your room from being sick as a result of overdoing it. If you take medicine, be sure to bring enough with you for the entire trip and perhaps some extra in case there are unforeseen delays.
Don't forget to stay hydrated. There is a lot of sitting, but you must sometimes walk a considerable distance between events. It might be helpful to bring bottled water with you for seminar day or evening activities. There were plenty of water stations just outside the convention hall during general sessions, so it isn’t necessary to buy bottled water during those unless you really don't like moving from your seat during meetings. It's also perfectly fine to get up during meetings to stretch or use the restroom. Just be as discreet as you are able. I found it easier to do this if I chose a seat near the back of the room, at the end of a row, and preferably near a corner. This may not work if you wish to sit with your state's delegation. If you have a guide dog, I would also caution you not to position your dog directly next to a doorway, since there will be people needing to get in and out of the room. And, of course, be mindful of noise-emitting devices during sessions and meetings. It is wise to bring a set of headphones for your phone or notetaker. If you must take a call, please leave the room.
A good piece of advice I give to families with more than one adult attending is that you have the advantage of doing some turn taking. If two items are happening simultaneously that are both important, families have the ability to "divide and conquer." It's also possible for one parent to stay in the room with a child that may be over-tired or fussy while the other attends meetings. Those roles can be swapped so that both spouses get a break and the chance to do things.
I would also encourage first-time attendees to go to the Rookie Roundup. You will receive a warm welcome, lots of useful information, and a ribbon for your name tag that lets others know you are a first-timer. I also would encourage you not to overlook the other seminars held just before and during the general sessions. I attended many of the NOPBC (National Organization of Parents of Blind Children) and PIBE (Professionals in Blindness Education) sessions and found them very useful. The cane walk and the Braille book fair should definitely be on almost everyone's itinerary.
Also know ahead of time that many state affiliates and divisions use the convention to fundraise. You will be asked many times if you would like to purchase an item, make a donation, or buy a raffle ticket. I was told to budget ahead for this, and that was extremely helpful. It's very hard to refuse, especially when it's a cute child making the request, and it often is. I kept a ziplock bag with my budgeted amount of money for this in one- and five-dollar bills. It went with me almost everywhere. Then, when I purchased tickets for a raffle, the tickets also went into this bag so that they didn't get lost in the shuffle. This was helpful in several ways, not only as an organizational tool, but as a way to gauge how much money I had spent for this type of thing. When I started to run low, I was more conservative in my purchasing. When I ran out, I didn't feel bad about declining a purchase, knowing that I had already used what had been budgeted for this. Once or twice I reached into my "miscellaneous" budgeted monies when motivated to help a certain division that I felt strongly about.
This leads me to my next piece of advice. As soon as you know you are going, make a budget. Put it in writing in whatever format you're used to using and include everything—transportation, lodging, food, registration and banquet fees, donations and sales, miscellaneous spending, and admission costs for activities or meetings that require it. Ask veteran attendees how much one should budget for certain items. Increase that amount by a few dollars as a cushion. Have an emergency fund (or if you have the ability and don't mind doing so, assign a credit card to use) to cover anything that you may not have planned for. Once you decide how much you think you need to budget for each item, try not to exceed this amount significantly. Think about sharing the cost of the hotel room. This decreases the amount you pay for lodging significantly. Our state also rents a charter bus for its members who help fundraise to offset the cost during the year. Members can ride it to and from the convention at a reduced price.
Be mindful of freebies. There will be many of these opportunities around, but you have to be observant to find them. I was able to RSVP for a free breakfast and information session put on by the American Foundation for the Blind. The food was delicious, and the information was interesting. There were also tote bags and other items at events or in the exhibit hall. Bookshare.org had freebies for its clients, which turned out to be extremely useful.
I also encourage you to go to the banquet. If you plan to apply for the Jernigan Scholarship, this is a requirement. It is also one of the key portions of the convention, and you'll feel a stronger connection with the organization if you are able to attend. However, this is probably the most expensive item for the week other than lodging, transportation to and from the hotel, and food. It is worth the cost to attend, whether this is your first or your fiftieth convention.
I hope the information that I have shared will make your first convention easier. I definitely encourage everyone to attend, especially if you have read about past conventions and thought it would be interesting or fun to go. Even if you already consider yourself an old pro at being blind, you will learn things that will challenge you to be more independent. There is something there for everyone, and I guarantee that by the end of the week you'll learn something new about yourself and your own abilities that will surprise you.