Sharing Our Successes
Read how our members are living the lives they want!
The National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey has positively changed many lives since its founding in 1976. If you wish your personal story to be shared here, please submit to President Linda Melendez via our contact form for consideration.
Brian Mackey is the past affiliate treasurer, and affiliate bookkeeper and webmaster.
Brian completed the National Federation of the Blind’s 86th National Leadership Seminar in March 2018. Later that year, he was awarded the 2018 NFBNJ Raising Expectations Award in honor of his 15 years of service to the affiliate. The award was made at the 42nd NFBNJ State Convention after his move to Pennsylvania earlier that year.
Brian currently serves as the treasurer of the Pennsylvania affiliate and the newly elected chapter president of the NFB of PA Greater Berks Chapter. In addition to being the webmaster for the New Jersey affiliate, he provides his webmaster services to four additional state affiliates and two national divisions.
When Brian isn’t doing NFB related work, he is hard at work as the administrative assistant in the Food & Beverage department at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading, the #1 ranked DoubleTree in North, South, and Central America.also currently serves as webmaster for
Brian also is active in the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association, an activity he began in 2010. The association holds 30 to 40 outings a year in Pennsylvania and Southern NJ. Brian is the winner of the 2018 MABGA Pro Am Tournament and the winner of the 2018 Putting Contest at Green Valley Country Club. Brian currently serves as the organization’s board member and webmaster.
In 2006, Brian earned his 1st degree black belt in Shotokan karate. He graduated from the NFB’s Louisiana Center for the Blind in 2007.
Carol Castellano is the founder and chair of the Parents of Blind Children-NJ Group, secretary of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and member of the Northern Chapter.
Our family was lucky enough to learn about the NFB when our daughter Serena was a baby. The teachers and therapists we had met seemed to have very low expectations for her development. But from the NFB we learned not only to have high expectations for her future but how to achieve that outcome.
We began attending NFB conventions when she was in first grade and we were desperate for help with her education. We received help and so much more. Our daughter is an adult now (she received a Master’s degree in social work) and we are still active members of our state NFB and we still attend conventions.
What we found that first time is what still inspires and energizes us each time we go–the message that blind people can lead normal lives complete with a job, a family, friendships, fun, and involvement in community life.
We learn something new at convention each year that can not only help our child but that we can take back to our home state to help other blind kids and their families. Being part of the NFB and attending NFB conventions is absolutely THE BEST thing you can do for your blind child.
Chris Franz is a member of the Technology Committee and the Seniors Committee.
I am vision Impaired and have Cerebral Palsy. When I was going to school most of my teachers gave me coloring books and crayons and M&Ms to keep me quiet. Teachers told me I couldn’t learn anything.
I met a wonderful lady named Jane Degenshein in 2006 who introduced me to her brother Joe Ruffalo. They encouraged me to learn other techniques so I could do more by myself. After that, I went to the Joseph Kohn Training Center (JKTC) in New Brunswick to learn daily living skills to prepare me for an independent life on my own.
With Jane and Joe’s excitement and encouragement I moved out of a group home into my first apartment alone over 10 years ago. I went to my first state convention in 2009. I believed in the NFB philosophy and became more and more independent as the years went by. I learned a lot from different people in the Federation, such as how to act on a conference call, and each one can teach one. I became more confident with so many friends of mine in the federation.
I joined the Senior Committee since it started in 2011, and the Technology Committee in 2013. I am grateful for all of you in the NFB that continue to assist me to be the best I can be.
Many of you have made me more confident and this makes me much happier. I want to say to those new members that there are people that believe in you here in our NFB family, just like I found and it has helped me to live the life I want and need, and you can be the best you can be here with our NFB family too.
Beatrice Oliveti is the past affiliate secretary, member and past secretary of the Northeast Chapter, and member of the Technology Committee.
In 2008, I called David DeNotaris, a leader in the NFBNJ with questions pertaining to the skills and techniques of blindness. David provided information about the Northeast Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey. The Federation changed my life by raising my expectations to believe that I was the one who could transform my dreams into reality. They wanted to know how they could assist me to live the life I want!
Throughout my years in the NFBNJ, I’ve met many members that have become my friends. I’ve learned life-altering skills, such as how to take New Jersey Transit’s Access Link paratransit system, and how to use an iPhone with voiceover. I love attending events such as the national and state conventions, the chapter and the affiliate holiday parties, our Northeast Chapter meetings, and the educational, motivational and inspirational fundraising activities.
I had the honor of serving as state secretary of the New Jersey Affiliate for several years. Not only did this opportunity help strengthen my interpersonal and computer skills, but, as a result, I was able to participate in a leadership/membership engagement weekend conference at the National Office in Baltimore. During my time as secretary, I also served as program director for ThruOurEyes, an internet radio show featuring the affiliate president as host. This experience enabled me to interact with many national leaders within the Federation.
Jane taught me useful technology skills such as how to use an iPod touch and the NLS (National Library Service) talking book player. I’m blessed to know Jane and the members throughout the country and state. We are a Federation family.
Another awesome thing that happened in my life as a result of making the acquaintance of my Federation family is that, as a result of attending events with me, my family was able to see how other blind people, in addition to myself, can become successful through training. I’m forever grateful to my Federation family for unlocking my potential, which now allows me to share the gift of the Federation and to live the life I want through training and advocacy.
The members believed in me before I believed in myself. My advice is to attend national and state conventions, locate a chapter, attend the meetings, get and stay involved, and share the gift of the Federation with others.
Linda Melendez is the affiliate president.
A major accomplishment of mine was being the keynote speaker at the 35th annual conference of the NJ Commission on Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities . I was able to share details of my life’s journey with the 75 people in attendance.
It was an honor and a privilege to speak abouthow I have become the woman I am today. I am the eldest of four daughters of a single mom in the late 60’s; her struggles and triumphs during a time when there was little to no assistance for physically abused women. Resources back then also were limited for single parents, families living below the poverty level and people with disabilities. I focused on how each person has the power in their own lives to remove barriers and overcome obstacles that prevent us from living the lives we truly want.
Highlights of my presentation included:
- sharing my own experiences as a single mom and serving as support for my family;
- going from sight to blindness and how there really can be a great life after such an experience;
- the pride and hard work involved to lose 100 pounds and completing my first half-marathon;
- coping with the death of my mom, managing my anxiety and depression and of course, describing my leadership role in the National Federation of the Blind of NJ and how its philosophy holds a major role in my life today.
Ryan Stevens is the president of the Garden State Chapter of NFBNJ. He also holds the positions of Legislative Director and Resolutions Committee Chair for the state affiliate. He lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and has been a member since 1995.
I was introduced to the National Federation of the Blind by my uncle, Jeff Altman, who was living in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1990’s. He invited me to a meeting of the Keystone Chapter in Philly, but I did not grasp its importance. I was also looking for work after having just graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor’s Degree in mathematics and NJ teaching certification. That endeavor was a major struggle which ended without success. I thought the biggest cause for not finding a job was the limited number of schools that were accessible by mass transit, but I now believe it really was that I had not fully accepted my blindness.
I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which causes loss of eyesight over time. In my case, this happened so slowly, I often didn’t truly know how much vision I had lost without learning the hard way. In fact, it took walking into a chain link fence on the Rutgers campus a month before doing my student teaching to make me realize I needed to use a cane. Uncle Jeff, who is a certified cane travel instructor and who has RP himself, gave me some initial lessons so that I could safely travel to the school where I was teaching. (Jeff, who is First vice president of the Nebraska affiliate, works as a cane travel instructor for that state’s blindness agency.)
Having been unable to secure a full-time teaching position, I attended a school called Abilitech to become a computer programmer. I completed the training by doing an internship with the US Public Health Service, and they hired me part-time at the end of it. Unfortunately, that only lasted just over a year. I was again back at square one, and my uncle invited me to another Keystone Chapter meeting, which I attended in April 1994. This time, I heard people who were dealing with the same problems I was and who were talking about ways to deal with those problems. I officially joined the chapter the next month, and also took part in the NFB of Pennsylvania State Convention in November. I felt like I was beginning to understand what the Federation was about, and I wanted to help the chapter in any way I could. With my math background, I figured the most effective way to do so was to run for treasurer, and surprisingly I won the election.
When we returned from Convention, our chapter president talked about something called Washington Seminar. The idea of going to DC and discussing issues which impact blind people to members of Congress sounded so vital to me, and I wanted to be a part of that. My first assignment as treasurer was to make sure those who were going were given their stipend checks from the chapter, so I was required to go as well. The experience was everything I thought it would be, and I have not missed a Washington Seminar since. One day at the back elevator of the hotel, I overheard a woman say she lived in Moorestown, NJ, which is fairly close to my hometown. The woman turned out to be Agnes Allen, the founding secretary of the Garden State Chapter, and I was at their next meeting in February 1995. Over the next few years, I increasingly focused my efforts on my home state, and eventually left Keystone.
Later that year, I returned to Abilitech to get help looking for a full-time job, which had still been elusive. Through good fortune, they had an opening in their Software Development Department and gave me a chance to prove myself. I worked there for five years until moving on, and have remained employed in IT ever since.
In terms of hobbies, one of my coworkers at Abilitech belonged to an adaptive rowing club and he invited me to try it out. I loved it so much that I was a competitive rower for more than a dozen years, winning a couple of races along the way. Recently, I joined the Collingswood Community Chorus, which has given me the chance to take part in public performances. I also enjoy solving several varieties of puzzles, and I’ve even gotten into playing fantasy football.
Through the people I’ve met in the Federation, I also became a mentor in a state-wide program called Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Determination (LEAD), which I did from 2000 through 2013 when the program ended. I consider it the most fulfilling role I’ve ever held. It gave me the chance to be a teacher, working with blind and visually impaired high school students and showing them that they have a future despite their vision loss and the obstacles they will face.
I continue to learn from NFB, because of both its philosophy and its members. I also see that today’s obstacles are not as daunting as those that blind people faced when I joined 25 years ago. This inspires me to continue the work to achieve equality, opportunity and security for the blind, the mission of the Federation.