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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 22, 2011

Give what matters

People talk a lot about giving at Christmastime. Usually, we Americans focus on buying gifts. The National Retail Foundation estimates we’ll spend over $469 billion this year on Christmas shopping.

Some other kinds of giving cost less and mean more. We’ve devoted a big chunk of our front page this week to a story about an unusual kind of giving. A Guilderland High School senior, Michael Morawski, has given countless hours to transcribing children’s books into Braille for the blind in Malawi.

He credits those who have helped him — like the Guilderland wrestling team, which he describes as “almost like a family” — for his generosity. “All these people are helping me,” he said. “I wanted to help people that didn’t have what I have.”

His sincerity and dedication are inspiring.

His sentiments are familiar to Morawski’s teacher, Michelle Martin. A special education teacher, she used to be a social worker and she believes community service is good for her students.

“Helping others makes us feel good,” she said.

What an important lesson to learn. We believe it will stand Martin’s students in good stead for a lifetime.

But the way in which this particular service project came to Martin and Morawski is a lesson in itself. It came by way of teaching assistant Ginny Pieck and her daughter, Stephanie. A Guilderland graduate, Stephanie Pieck has gone on to become a concert pianist, performing across the United States and in Europe. She also teaches piano and has created her own series of books where each tune is written in both ink and Braille.

The fact that she was born blind has never stood in the way of her accomplishments. “She would just learn in a different way,” said her mother, giving this example from Stephanie’s childhood: “What’s a mountain? We put on our hiking boots and climbed one; then she knew.”

As a toddler, Stephanie visited the Altamont Fair and enjoyed patting the goats, her mother recalled. “I wanted her to learn to walk without holding my hand. A horse would be too dangerous, so we got a goat.”

Stephanie went on to raise two national champions and started a newsletter for blind people who raise goats that reached those in 10 different countries. This led to her correspondence with a Pentecostal bishop in Malawi, Moyawalero M. Mandala.

Stephanie started sending him books and papers and now there’s a library in Balaka on the Rivi-Rivi River named for her.

“In much of the Third World,” said Stephanie, “there’s a tremendous stigma; it’s shameful to be a person with a disability. Blind people are hidden in their homes, so as not to bring shame to their families, or they are led around the streets to beg. The bishop was disheartened by this. He went from village to village, gathering the blind together to teach them gardening, or animal husbandry.”

When the bishop found out Stephanie was a teacher, he asked her to make cassettes on how to garden and how to cook. She did. And now groups of blind people in Malawi are learning from those tapes basic skills that will allow them to live with dignity and contribute to their communities.

“It’s just not being afraid to try stuff,” said Stephanie.

You have to be able to envision something before you can do it. And you don’t need to be a sighted person to envision. Because of her upbringing and her attitude towards life, Stephanie Pieck has been able to accomplish great things.

Bishop Mandala in Malawi is doing the same for his blind countrymen, giving them the confidence and skills that will allow them to succeed.

The books that Michael Morawski is so painstakingly transcribing into Braille are part of what will help open the world for people he’ll never know. Louis Braille, who was blind himself, invented the raised-dot writing that first allowed blind people to read. Braille, who was blinded as a young child, had parents who gave him every opportunity to succeed, sending him to the National Institute for the Blind in Paris. It was there in the 1820s that he invented the system Morawski is now using to help the Malawians.

“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge,” said Louis Braille, “and that is vitally important for us if we are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

Pity is easy to give but not very helpful. Giving someone confidence and the means to succeed and contribute to society is much harder but far more worthwhile. That’s what Michelle Martin is doing for her students and that’s what Michael Morawski is doing for people he doesn’t know on the other side of the world.

–Melissa Hale-Spencer

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