Volunteering with Blinded Veterans Leads to a Fulfilling Career at the Department of Veterans Affairs

Editor’s note: Here is another post related to volunteering and National Volunteer Week. However, peer advisor Sue Martin, Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, also addresses another important theme this week— Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Week.

Volunteering at the Blind Rehabilitation Center

My life with blindness began in my mid-twenties. I had to learn how to do almost everything all over again. I had great teachers and, less than a year after I became blind, my orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor suggested that I work as a volunteer. His day job was with the Southeastern Blind Rehabilitation Center (SBRC) located at the Birmingham VA Medical Center. I’m not a Veteran so my work with him took place outside his job duties. The Department of Veterans Affairs has several centers around the country where Veterans who are experiencing vision loss receive blindness rehabilitation services.

Soldier in Desert Fatigues Saluting an American Flag.

It seemed a good idea at the time, so I signed up. I didn’t know what to expect when I began my life as a volunteer. Would I work with Veterans? Would I help staff members? I ended up doing both. My work with Veterans revolved around recreational activities. We had square dances. We went out to dinner. We went on field trips. I had been to the local botanical gardens many times in my sighted life and I could at least get Veterans in the right neighborhood to smell the roses. I helped staff by transcribing reports and other documents into braille and printing them out with a braille embosser. This was my first experience with assistive technology, which has pretty much ended up as my passion. Indeed, my interest in and skill with technology has provided me with not one, but two, careers.

Deciding to Make Blind Rehab My Profession

After working at the blind center as a volunteer for several months I decided to make blind rehab my profession. I enrolled in the blind rehab program at Western Michigan University where I acquired both a master’s degree and a husband. As grad school drew to a close we began looking for jobs. A classmate and I both applied for a job in Maine. We were equally qualified. They offered me the job. I found out later that my volunteer work was the deciding factor. That was the only difference between two equally qualified applicants and it made all the difference.

Working as VRT and Technology Instructor

For the next twenty years I worked as a vision rehab therapist. I grew to know and love many of the folks with whom I worked. The demographics of blindness meant that I worked with many seniors. People who had lived long, full, and satisfying lives. People who wanted to live out the rest of their lives in the fullness they so richly deserved. Providing them with the skills and tools to do this was immensely rewarding.

During my life as a VRT, I grew more and more interested in technology. This first took the form of learning to be a low vision therapist. Then I met my first computer. That’s all it took. I was off and running. In those days there was nowhere you could go to learn to be an assistive technology instructor. So I read everything I could get my hands on about assistive technology (AT). I tried some pretty wild things in those early days and I’ve blown up my share of computers. But I learned something every time. I learned not to be timid about technology. I learned to fly a computer like a fighter jet. Then, I moved into my first job as an AT instructor.

A Job Opening Where I Volunteered Years Ago

Several years later I heard of a job opening at the Southeastern Blind Rehab Center where I had done my volunteer work. They were hiring a subject matter expert for the Computer Access Training Section. I applied for the job. I had kept in touch with many of the professionals at the SBRC and we had renewed friendships at conferences all across the country. They had watched me grow and prosper as a professional. Twenty years after working there as a volunteer I walked back in the door of the SBRC as a full member of staff.

During my five years as the subject matter expert I grew more and more interested in the accessibility of technology. This interest provided me with the skill and passion for my current career, that of a management analyst in the Office of Information & Technology within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Section 508 of the Rehab Act requires that Federal agencies make their technology accessible to employees and members of the public. That’s what I do now. It’s fast paced and challenging. And it’s fun. I work with an incredibly talented team. And it all started when I volunteered at the Southeastern Blind Rehab Center.

Volunteering Can Lead to Employment

Volunteering is not just a great way to give back in your community but can also lead to employment. So, do you currently volunteer? Have you volunteered in the past? Has any of your volunteer work ever led to paid employment opportunities? If so share about your volunteer experiences and how they helped you land that job.

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