Remember Vernon of Panama? (See our post on his wonderful work in Belize here: Vernon of Panama)
I mentioned that he had moved from Belize to Panama and was creating jewelry from there. But what I didn't mention, because I didn't know until the other day – was that he and his wife have gotten back on the altruism horse. Vernon and his wife are now on the Holy Cross Education Foundation Board of Directors – and deeply involved in a new project – teaching the blind to make jewelry!
They left the school in Belize in good hands; the staff they trained earlier now runs the school and it is doing well (though always in need of donations – see our earlier post if you'd like to give to that project). Vernon claims he was trying to retire when they left there. He says he has flunked retirement five times. Last year for Christmas, his daughter gave him "The Idiot's Guide to Retirement." That made me laugh because I'm also in the process of flunking retirement for the second time. (At least this time I am focused on The Bead and not wandering back into the world of higher education – let's see if Vernon can get out of his groove – oh, wait – he has wandered from jewelry and INTO education – so we are going opposite directions. I guess someone needs to fill the void :-)
Anyway, not too long ago, Vernon was having a drink with a new friend (Ted) in Panama, a friend who is blind due to a car accident that occurred years ago. Before the accident, Ted was into writing computer programs. After the accident, he couldn't use a computer, so he decided to write a program that would allow the blind to hear what was being written on the computer. This is now the #1 selling computer program for the blind in the world!!! Vernon was impressed and asked Ted about what special problems blind people in Panama might encounter. Ted said "Finding Jobs!" – and also "Being able to do things that allow them to feel that they are able to help support themselves and their families."
Vernon (true to form) said "Heck, I can create jobs in my field. Just need to figure out how to make it work. I built a school in a swamp on an island – why not teach the blind how to make jewelry?"
So together they hatched this plan to teach beading to the blind. They came up with an incredibly clever assistive mechanism in just a few weeks. It's an inexpensive air pump system that blows air through a small, flexible tube – that has a special fitting on the end which conforms to the shape of any bead. His first "guinea pig" students said they could feel the air blowing through the hole in the bead, and could then insert the string into the hole using the feel of the air flow. One of the students lost her sight when she was a young child, but still remembers colors. So for her, they set up bead boxes by color, and she picks the colors for her pieces. Another has limited sight and she does the same. Vernon says it is very cool to see what they can do with just a little help or direction. For the others, the boxes are set in the order they need to string the beads. They also utilize measuring sticks so the students can cut the bead cord to the proper length, as well as make sure the necklace is the right size.
After putting the basic system in place, Vernon (simply! ) convinced Bishop Murray the Episcopal Bishop in Panama to donate space and utilities for a classroom. Ted also donated some seed money to refurbish the space and install air conditioning. And, another friend donated money for chairs and tools. Today, they are "running with gas" as they say, and as you can see in the photos.
I asked Vernon what other charity-minded folks could do for them, and he had a quick answer. They are still in need of beads -- either loose or old strands that can be taken apart and reused to make new pieces. They also need sales outlets – not just in Panama, but in other countries. He suggested home party programs that could be hosted, where the jewelry his students produce could be sold. And retail stores that would buy their items would also be appreciated! (Anyone out there have any connections??)
Vernon has already found four volunteers* who do most of the teaching. (*I love Vernon's method for finding volunteers. There were four women who wanted to learn his craft. In return for free lessons, they agreed to volunteer their services teaching their new-found skills at his school. Talk about creative approaches to a challenge!!)
The goal is to train the first six blind and visually impaired students they are working with to become teachers, so they can in turn start expanding the project throughout the country. Most of the students are completely blind, but some have limited vision. Those who have limited vision can go beyond the simple beading and get into cutting gemstones and more advanced techniques of assembling/making jewelry. Those who are completely blind can still do forming and polishing of stones using their sense of touch. Vernon is also developing a plan to teach everyone how to do bezel set stones and prong settings. In the 3 weeks sense he opened the project the number of students has already grown to 11- wow!
Not one to rest even when he has scaled 'Mount Everest', this dynamo of a man has also (with the help of a few friends) donated the tools and equipment needed to establish a complete jewelry school at the University of Panama. This will be the only jewelry school in a university in the entire country! The school is to open in March, and this is related to his project with the blind. He plans to bring his blind students to the University and have them teach the University students how to do beading and stone cutting and setting. One of his many (noble) goals is to open the eyes of those who can see to look past what may be thought of as a 'disability', and see the person inside, and their ABILITIES. He also plans to round up eye doctors to help, however they can, after the critical goal of training has been met.
Right now, his big push is to get the word out and garner support via a display booth at the once a year Make a Wish Foundation Christmas Bazaar in Panama City. This is a big event and draws thousands of people. They will be set up and making necklaces for the event – this November! We hope anyone who can donate items mentioned above can get them to him soon, so they will be helpful for this event.
If anyone might be traveling to Panama and wants to take a few hours to help out, he would be delighted to make arrangements. He promises in that case to keep you busy for a few hours or days or even a month or two.
And we end with Vernon's simple philosophy of life (or maybe it's just advice) --
"Enjoy life, help others, and make lots of jewelry."
We love this guy. Hope some of you can pitch in on this great cause.
Until next time,