By Nat Ratcliffe
As an introverted old soul, I’ve always struggled to find my niche within any group. Whether in my small group of friends, in a team sport or project, or even in special interest groups. Being the person that I am, I’ve enjoyed being the leader in certain circumstances, but also hanging in the background and cheering people on. In my group of friends some would regard me as the leader of the pack, but I’m sure if you asked my friend Meka, she’d tell you that her “extra” in extrovert naturally makes her the leader of our small group of oddballs. I tend to wholly agree. While she blazes her way through conversation if we’re out together, I’ll just quietly tag along and just bask in the idea of spending time with my bestie.
I have never felt connected to any group. Sure, I’ve flitted around different organizations, but nothing caught at my hands and made me stay simply because of love. I have never belonged to book clubs, because the premise always had me chafing at having to be assigned any sort of book. I never really felt connection with student-focused or young adult-driven groups. I privately call myself the floater; maybe one day I’d show up to a weaving class another day maybe a drum circle. I might even show up in a foreign language course and then never show up again. With absolute certainty, I can say I have felt connection and love from two unrelated groups of people, simply because they expect nothing but who I really am.
Back when Hamilton was blasting through everyone’s speakers, (and truly, why shouldn’t it have been? It’s an amazing musical), I posted in the Nerdfighteria special interest group for Hamilton fans. I knew that since I was a low-income college student, the chances of my seeing Hamilton on Broadway were extremely slim. For those who are curious, Nerdfighteria is a group of people across the world who make it their jobs to decrease worldsuck in their daily lives. From small things like helping a stranger, to being kind, compassionate, caring human beings, you name it. Nerdfighters exist in everyone. But I digress.
When I posted in the Nerdfighteria Hamilton group, I asked if anyone would be willing to tell me things about the musical that I, being completely blind, would miss out on. To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure anyone would respond, but I could try. I waited, full of hope and longing to understand just how amazing Hamilton truly was.
Within the first half hour of that post, the comments were full of strangers asking me what I wanted to know. Lighting? Well, here you go. Dancing? Well, we can’t really say a whole lot because we’d be here for hours, but it is amazing. But what took my breath away was this: I asked them about the cast’s costumes. I have never seen a large group of strangers pull together to support one teen’s wistful quandaries. People explained to me in detail what Eliza, Alexander, Angelica, and the other cast members looked like, from their hair to their costume changes. The gowns used, the fact that Hamilton had a ponytail, those details that I never stopped to think about. This experience was nothing short of amazing. By the end of the night, I was in tears. These strangers on the internet had given me a whole new picture of the musical I so deeply loved and adored. Until this moment, I had felt shut out of the Ham Fam, but it wasn’t their fault. It took me reaching out and simply asking. Leaving that vulnerable knowledge that yes I was blind, no I don’t envy anyone having their sight, but does Eliza wear her hair down or up? Do the Schuyler sisters look alike? This group of amazing individuals took me in, met me where I was at, and were patient and gentle while I geeked out to my heart’s content.
The second group that has captured my heart recently has been the American Council of the Blind. More specifically the community calls that, if you have ever had the opportunity to wander through Meka’s or my social media timelines, we sometimes talk about. Essentially, when COVID-19 struck and stay-at-home orders were put into place, ACB, and more specifically, Cindy Hollis, saw a need for community and connection among ACB’s members. For a super short intro, she is the Membership Service Coordinator for ACB, and she is, to put it simply, an amazing human. Oh, and she happens to be Meka’s bestie, too. Double win!
Cindy, seeing the need that her ACB family needed for connection, began facilitating biweekly coffee socials. These calls became so beloved that it soon extended to three times a week, and when gently prodded by Cindy, I agreed to do Wednesday socials. Friday, Saturday, and Sundays socials were soon to follow. On every call, we averaged about 45 participants of all genders and ages, who were grateful for a sense of community during this huge societal upheaval. And how could you not love them? Cindy often uses the phrase, ‘embrace, engage, empower’. Her loving personality, which transcended to this huge community of people of all ages, were my daily reminder of what a warm hug felt like. When the pandemic struck, I was anxious and terrified of being stuck at home. I’m an introvert, but I don’t enjoy being caged in.
I had my friends, I had my dog, but I had no routine. I wasn’t learning new things, nor was I really accomplishing much. So when Meka wrangled Brandon and I into attending Cindy’s coffee social, I hesitantly obliged. Why did I hesitate, you may ask? Well, for those of you that don’t know me, I am not a morning person. These socials started at 8 in the morning, and I, the ever-struggling college student, was not accustomed to interacting with 40 or so strangers. But I can tell you one thing; I don’t regret ever attending that first meeting.
From the first moment Cindy started talking to me, I grew to like her. She is kind, fun, and she loves intensely. She connected with me after the call and we grew to know a little more about each other, bonding over growing up in the same city, attending the same schools, and our love for Meka. Soon thereafter, I started to look to Cindy as a role model. She took me under her wing, taught me how to facilitate and host calls, trusted me and a few others to run these calls that now numbered in the dozens every week. I tell you all this to impress upon you the words she uses and just how she has done it. She, who has worked so hard to grow this loving community, inadvertently taught us all how to embrace newcomers, engage them, and empower them to reach new potentials they may not have ever known they possessed. That is me. I am the newcomer.
As of April of this year, I became a member at large of the American Council of the Blind. We’ve created this huge community of people who love the connection, check up on each other if any of us express not feeling very well, and just lift each other up. Together this community has worked hard, and with some direction has created a community Facebook group that now numbers over 900. To no one’s surprise, Cindy had a hand in it. But she was not alone. She raised others up and encouraged connection, love, and passion for others to put together a team that I am proud to be part of.
During one coffee social, the icebreaker question was asked, “What did you call your grandma or grandmother figure in your life?” While others got to tell stories about their grans, I felt a little left out. I had never truly had a relationship with either of my grandmothers, as one had passed before my birth and another had been diagnosed with multiple illnesses when I was young. I never really got that experience, to no one’s fault but it being the outcome of life. Then it struck me. When it was my turn, I answered without hesitation, “Well… I call her Cindy.” She was so taken aback, but she is the person who has been instrumental in making sure this community was the loving warm hug we all needed. She filled that space in my life that wasn’t taken by my own mother, Meka, and others. So yes, now she jokes that I am her granddaughter, but she has no idea how much she has helped me and countless others have a better quality of life during this pandemic. She will always be Nana Cindy to her actual grandkids, and perhaps Nana Cindy to me teasingly, but she is the heart of ACB’s community, and I am glad I get to be part of it.
Your community may not be like the kinds as-seen-on TV, but that does not make them less impactful, warm, and safe places to be yourself. My neighbors may not bake me cookies or come asking to borrow some sugar, but I know that in my Hamilton family and my ACB community family, I am always welcome at their table just as I am. That is more than enough. I thank both of these groups, for not expecting me to be anything but who I am: geeky, shy, silly, passionate, loyal and understood. I silently thank Cindy every day for accepting me into her ACB family with open arms, for believing in me and giving me opportunities to assist ACB in any way that I can. I thank both these groups for not letting me fall.
Nat is the owner and blogger of Guidethisway, a website that focuses on her stories, advocacy, and her thoughts. She is currently a junior in college, majoring in Communications and Public Relations. She resides in California with her guide dog, Dodson, and a cup of coffee always at hand. You can read more of her stories at: http://www.guidethisway.net.