by Cheryl Stewart

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Ah, there it is, my seat, 8B, a window seat, my favorite! Stuffing my carry-on things under the seat in front of me, I buckled up and settled in for the first leg of the journey. It is 10 minutes before 9 in the morning, and other passengers are now boarding this flight that will take us all to Seattle; some to stay, others to travel on to who knows where. As for me, it is July 1st, and I am on my way to Birmingham, Ala., and in a little more than 12 hours will be there.

What seemed like a dream, from the moment I got the phone call saying, "Cheryl, we are pleased to inform you that you have been chosen to receive the First-Timer Award," was now a reality. The day passed quickly as time and I flew, landing two flights later in Birmingham at 9:55 p.m. Central Daylight Time. The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane was the humidity; it was like walking from an air-conditioned room into a bathroom where someone is taking a hot shower.

In a matter of minutes I was in the parking garage, along with a handful of other conventioneers, waiting for the shuttle that would take us to our temporary home for the next 11 days. How exciting it was to be there in another part of the country where so much history still lives! My senses fully awake, I was intent on experiencing everything going on around me.

I closed my eyes for a short night's sleep. A few hours later, I went off on an all-day tour consisting of the Space and Rocket Center, a hands-on look at the Helen Keller plantation, dinner in a historic home called The Julian House, then back to the plantation to enjoy "The Miracle Worker," which included audio description. "How on earth do those events relate one to another?" you may be asking. Actually, they blended together beautifully. The entire day spoke to me of a persistence that continues to press forward even though every circumstance surrounding it says, "Stop, it will not work." What amazing things are accomplished by that kind of persistence!

The weekend was filled with exploring and orienting myself with the hotel and convention center. The lobby and atrium echoed with voices as people trickled in from across the country for the 43rd annual ACB convention.

On Sunday evening, the atmosphere was sober, as the opening night of convention was finally here. "Wow! Attendance is really down this year," was the comment most frequently heard; and that comment was echoed throughout the entire week. I sat in my chair, notetaker on the table in front of me, and listened as presentations were made and took notes. What spoke with inaudible words, even louder than the presenters, was the tension that filled the air. Anticipation; anxiety; concern; they were all standing like soldiers at full attention, alert, fully focused, watching for anything disagreeable that might provoke an immediate response.

The days passed by quickly, filled with new people to meet, old friends to embrace, all kinds of different foods to enjoy, the people and culture of a new environment, activities to participate in, the exhibit area -- where 80 companies tried to persuade me to buy their products, and meetings to attend and learn more about ACB.

"Do not try to do too much the first time around," I was told by my peers, and their counsel was all too true! I kept my schedule fairly light and was able to participate in things without feeling my life was on a conveyer belt for the week and I was merely along for the ride.

Finally, it was Sunday, July 11th, the end of the week. It was time to go home. My time spent in Birmingham was something that covers a wide range of emotions and to try to encapsulate it here is difficult for me. There was much comment made to me before and during the convention that, as a first-timer, it was sad that the first convention I had the opportunity to attend was while ACB was in such turmoil. Yes, it was obvious that things were not their usual way; the excitement and exuberance that should attend such an event were replaced with an atmosphere subdued by concern. All I could see in my mind's eye was a man whose name was ACB no longer walking straight and tall, a confident stride to his step. Rather, he was bowed over with a pack on his back, shuffling along, unable to move freely under the weight of his burden; this I found very sad.

Was I glad I went? Oh, yes! I came back from that week a different person, strengthened by learning to listen to, and stay true to, my heart in the midst of controversy and compromise both within myself and ACB; richer from the people I met, the things I learned, and the experiences and challenges faced. Thank you, WCB and ACB, for giving me the privilege of attending as both a first-timer from Washington state as well as the Durward McDaniel award winner. I am truly grateful for the opportunity; it is an experience I will never forget!

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