By Belinda Collins
If you have been involved with the ACB Community for a while, you have most likely figured out by now that we have an amazing crafting group, that has quite literally morphed into a small community of its own. From loom and needle knitting, Mitsy Kit projects, crocheting, card-making, and many other activities, crafting has evolved from what was once only a couple meetings a month into at least 15 scheduled activities per month.
Kaila Allen and Courtney Smith have transformed and developed this group into what it is today, and it continues to blossom. However, you may have often wondered about how it all began, and the connection between these two very talented ladies.
Kaila Allen, the youngest of three girls, was born in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. When she was three, her family moved to Arizona. As a toddler, she was diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis, which is a rare type of inherited eye disorder that affects the retina and causes severe vision loss at birth.
Kaila had a bit more vision as a kid than many others with her eye condition. From horseback riding to art classes, and playing goalball, she was a very active kid who enjoyed life to the fullest.
Due to her mother’s advocating on her behalf and the expectation that she would not be treated any differently than her sighted siblings, Kaila attended public school alongside her peers. With that strong support system and a feeling of acceptance, it is no surprise that Kaila’s first couple of jobs as a teenager were answering phones at her Mom’s sign shop and working alongside her Dad, who did glazing for window installations.
Despite some of the typical challenges of being legally blind, Kaila’s dedication and strong work ethic awarded her with other job opportunities as well. After high school, she attended school to become a massage therapist and worked in that field for five years. However, due to the inconsistency of work, she eventually accepted a job at an agency in Arizona that provided services for individuals with developmental disabilities. Her primary job there was to provide state-required training to the employees. In her eight years in that position, the number of employees grew exponentially from 60 to over 300. Kaila loved teaching and interacting with the employees, parents, and clients; however, she eventually had to leave the position just before the birth of her second child. But her journey of teaching did not end there.
Throughout the years, Kaila’s vision continued to decrease, but that did not diminish her love and fascination with arts and crafts, which is something she inherited from her family of artists. In 2015, she enrolled in a ceramics class at the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and soon afterwards was asked if she would be willing to teach basic crochet and loom knitting classes. She thoroughly enjoyed teaching and interacting with clients at the center until the program was shut down in 2019.
Meanwhile, in the deep southern state of Mississippi, another story was taking shape that would eventually bring together a collaboration that would impact many.
Courtney Smith, the oldest of two girls, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and was raised by her mother and grandparents after her parents divorced when she was six years old.
In her early teens she began experiencing some difficulties seeing at night, and in 1992, at the age of eighteen, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. But she still maintained a lifestyle as a fully sighted person, and was even able to drive on a limited basis for a few years.
Courtney worked as a cashier and other positions at a local grocery store chain for several years before accepting a job as a receptionist at the Department of Human Services in her current hometown of Iuka, Mississippi. She enjoyed eight years of being able to provide needed assistance to those in the foster care and economic assistance divisions. However, during that time, she began having difficulty seeing her computer screen and had very little knowledge of and limited access to any accessible accommodations. Due to the progressive vision loss, she was forced to give up her position in 2007.
The adjustment to the onset of blindness was something Courtney did instinctively. She stated that she made adaptations for her daily routine without any real consideration of new specific processes to complete tasks without assistance. However, in May of 2010, she was finally able to receive formalized independent daily living skills training at the Mississippi Training Center for the Blind in Tupelo. That is also where she met her future husband.
Crafting has always been a huge part of Courtney’s life. She watched her Mom and grandmother work on many crochet and knitting projects as a young girl, and has completed many knitting projects of her own over the years. Losing her sight did not discourage her from learning different adaptations and trying new techniques that would afford her the ability to complete projects without much, if any, sighted assistance. She often attended crafting workshops and groups for the blind, which fueled her desire to learn more. It also ignited the passion to help others who wanted to try their hand at various crafts, even if they were unsure they could do it as a blind person.
At present, Kaila lives in Mesa, Arizona. When she is not working on some sort of craft project, Kaila is busy doing various family activities with her husband Jimmy and two kids, Jordan and Jonah. They often enjoy swimming, tandem biking, and picnics.
Meanwhile, in Iuka, Courtney enjoys spending time with her husband Jason and their little puggle named Ranger. Cooking, listening to music, and just hanging out with family and friends are a few things she enjoys outside of her busy crafting lifestyle.
When the pandemic of 2020 happened and turned the world upside down, both of these ladies were made aware of the ACB Community by a couple of friends. After attending events for a couple of months Kaila, along with another community member, started a crafty chat call on June 7, that was to be held twice per month. It was abundantly clear in those early meetings that people wanted more. They were eager to learn new crafts. By this point Courtney had also heard about the meetings and decided to give them a chance. Little did she know that she would be surprised to find that Kaila was leading the charge. Yes, Courtney and Kaila were acquainted before the ACB Community came into existence. They had attended various crafting workshops together throughout the years. These two extremely talented ladies, who have a heart for people and a love of teaching, quickly began brainstorming and sharing their ideas with each other about the endless possibilities that lay in front of them.
In July of 2020 loom knitting became the first ongoing event, and soon after crochet and needle knitting were added as well. And the rest as they say, is history. ACB Crafters group was off and running and has exploded over the past year. They have since collaborated with the Hadley Institute, the owner of Mitsy Kits, and others as well.
The ladies attribute the success of the crafting explosion to lots of networking and the talent of many other community members who have stepped up to teach and share what they know. The time and dedication by so many has provided many others with a sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Being a part of that incredible experience has meant the world to both of these ladies.
ACB Community, as a whole, has given Kaila Allen and Courtney Smith a home, a place where they feel they belong. Most importantly, it has woven together a beautifully crafted friendship that is unbreakable.
The American Council of the Blind has opportunities for you to connect with others from the comfort of your home through our community events, held every day of the week. If you would like to get our weekly schedule of events via email, please send an email to: ACB-Community-Eventsfirstname.lastname@example.org. To become a member of the American Council of the Blind, visit: https://acb.org/join-acb or call (800) 424-8666.