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Sunday, August 13, 2006

The graduation that was too short

By Dick Hirsch
The small auditorium was nearly filled with family members and friends, restless in their seats, eager for the program to begin. Meanwhile, on the large screen at the front, photos of the class members appeared over and over, in sequence. Then the screen was retracted, it grew expectantly quiet, and the strains of Pomp and Circumstance filled the room.
The double doors at the rear opened, and the nine smiling graduates, each accompanied by a volunteer aide to guide them, strode confidently down the center aisle to their seats at the front. This was graduation day, and, since it was no ordinary graduation, I will tell you the names of each graduate right at the top. They are: Kathleen Benjamin, Barbara Bolot, Wayne Adam Borer, Daniel Fedele, Amy Hawthorn, Maria Heinlein, Charlotte Hunter, Rebecca Irvin and Elizabeth McClerkin.
For the first time in my experience, I didn’t yawn once during a graduation ceremony. I’ve been to more than my quota of commencements, and the yawns were always contagious. I tried to stifle them, but could not. I was yawning and I was surrounded by other involuntary yawners. Most attendees would agree the programs are too predictable, too dull, and too long. Starting now, however, I can no longer generalize about graduations. The one I attended just recently almost seemed too short.
The class graduated from the 13-week program at the National Statler Center for Careers in Hospitality Service, a program of the Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted, MD Center for the Visually Impaired, at 1160 Main St. The graduates, all blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled, were trained in the use of computers and schooled in the operation of the software programs generally used in the hospitality industry, primarily hotels, travel agencies, restaurants. As they marched in, took their seats and the ceremony began, among those in the audience, there were lumps in many throats.
Conceived in Buffalo, the program, supported by million dollar grants from the Statler Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation, as well as substantial gifts from other donors, has achieved a national reputation since its inception seven years ago. The latest group was the 21st such class, and 87 percent of all graduates are employed, a statistic that all those involved cite with considerable pride. People who once might have been working for years in a sheltered workshop were trained to enter the mainstream of the labor market.
The program grew from an idea hatched by Ronald Maier, the executive director of the Olmsted Center. Seeking funds from various sources a few years ago for roof repairs and other needed improvements at the building, he discovered that the Statler Foundation, headquartered in Buffalo, earmarked all of its grants to programs related to the hospitality industry. Some research disclosed that there were many computer-related jobs that could be performed by properly trained blind workers. The Olmsted staff, consulting with hotel executives and assisted by many people in the hotel business, designed the program and it has proven to be a resounding hit, successful beyond expectations.
It was a happy time for all, including the cooperating local firms that arrange “externships,” for the students, enabling them to get some operating experience, and allowing each company to assess the abilities of students. Paul LeMere, employment manager at the Adams Mark Hotel and an instructor in the program, was the master of ceremonies, and Tom Ayers, president of We Care Transportation, Inc., was the keynote speaker.
They were both very well received, but the most enthusiastic round of applause was reserved for Wayne Adam Borer of Hamburg, one of the graduates, who was selected by the others in the class to speak on their behalf. He was accompanied to the podium by his dog, John. Borer, 42, introduced each of his classmates, extolling their various virtues in a light-hearted fashion, and said the most valuable lesson he learned was how to work with others. He praised the program and said the program would always be there to help people in the future. Then he got to the really important part, saying: “This program has made me into a productive worker.”
Borer received his certificate from Tom Molenda, general manager of the Holiday in on Camp Road, in Hamburg, where he had an externship. “I’m happy to report that Wayne is our newest employee at the Hamburg Holiday Inn,” he said.
Later, reflecting on the excitement of the day, Borer explained: “I don’t consider myself disabled. I’m just blind.”


At 3:17 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Very interesting. I bookmarked this for both Nancy and me. We will keep our eyes open.


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