Michigan Blind Athletic Association
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The Michigan Blind Athletic Association (MBAA) is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide visually impaired individuals, who are often seperated from physical education classes and competition, opportunities to participate in competitive and recreational athletic activities.  The MBAA further considers, as part of its mission, the continuing education of coaches and physical education instructors in techniques of coaching and physical education for participants of all ages who are visually impaired.  The MBAA is dedicated to the proposition that, empowered to participate, the quality of life of persons who are visually impaired is improved while he/she develops the confidence needed to participate and contribute in a competitive society.

Remarks from Tom Vance — May 2004

Kalamazoo Council of the Blind

May 13, 2004


 I am honored to be your speaker tonight, and will be talking about the Michigan Blind Athletic Association, or MBAA. I would like to begin, however, by offering some personal reflections on what it has meant to me to have been a part of this organization for the past five years.

Accepting a seat on the MBAA board served not only as my introduction to working with blind and low-vision individuals and the many aspects involved with that mission – it was also my introduction at the age of 45 – my age four years ago – to any kind of official athletic involvement whatsoever (aside from gym class in back in school – being recognized in 8th grade with the so-called honor of being the “most improved” athlete).

Yes, people who know me will tell you that sports or athletics and me don’t really go together and that sometimes I’m affectionately referred to by friends as “sports guy.” But the worthiness of this organization convinced me that perhaps I had something to offer in the arena of physical fitness. So, they have made a place for me and I have had a lot to learn – and continue to learn – about the environment, challenges, and great successes of blind and low-vision and the role that athletics can play in furthering a person’s quality of life.

As one of the sighted board members of MBAA -- and I know I speak for the others as well – I remain totally humbled and in awe of our fellow board members who are blind and visually impaired. Working with this fine group has been very inspiring, and from a personal perspective, service on this board has greatly expanded my view of the world.

Now I would like to give you a little background on the MBAA, and then I will offer some highlights about the recent works of our association.

Back in 1978, David Gordon – who perhaps can be called our founder – experienced beep baseball, then a newly adapted sport, for the first time in Lansing. The benefits of playing a competitive sport like beep baseball, an audio adaptation of softball, impressed David and convinced him that Kalamazoo needed its own team. The Telephone Pioneers agreed to sponsor a team, and within two years, there were two local teams here playing weekly. They also participated in the state tournament in Lansing and in games in Grand Rapids.

According to David’s historical account of the beginning of the MBAA, he recalls that players knew that they were onto something valuable that could – and should – grow. The need for increased opportunities for competition went hand-in-hand with the need for more money. I guess this wasn’t the first time that money had something to do with a great concept moving forward. I believe the saying is: necessity is the mother of invention?

Well, by now there were five groups fielding teams – not just Lansing and Kalamazoo, but also East Detroit, West Detroit and Flint. There were already bowling teams too, and even though their existence as part of a national sport had provided some funding, they too would need sources of revenue.

So, the MBAA, granted 501(c) 3 tax exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service in 1980, joined the rest of the world in the fundraising business and launched on our great adventure. The mission statement read: The MBAA is dedicated to the proposition that, empowered to participate, quality of life improves for the visually impaired. The Comstock Lions started things off with the generous gift of $1,000.

Meanwhile, the St. Thomas Moore parish was starting up cross country skiing, and Professor Paul Ponchillia introduced another competitive sport to the area, goal ball – a game with opposing goals played with a basketball with a bell inside, and conducted much like hockey or soccer. The game, which came to the United States from Europe in the 1970s, involves rolling the three and a half pound ball – at great speeds, I might add, upwards of 40 miles per hour, into the opposing goal.

Anyway, it was obvious that chaos would follow without a unified funding mechanism. The groups agreed that MBAA was in the best position to serve as an umbrella for everyone, so in 1983 we restructured. The first board members were Paul Ponchillia, John Boes (our current chairman), Harold Johnson, and David Gordon. Peter Mather was the first board member who was not a member of one of the founding athletic groups.

At this point, our history conveniently transitions into what is our primary funding effort – Sports Education Camp. Paul Ponchillia presented to the MBAA the idea for a sports camp for kids throughout Michigan to experience competitive sports, both team sports like goal ball, and individual events, such as track & field, swimming, gymnastics, and wrestling.

Now, fast-forward to the present with this month’s 17th Annual Sports Education Camp for blind and visually impaired 13 to 16 year-olds from across the state. Paid for by MBAA, and co-sponsored and planned by the Western Michigan University Department of Blind & Low Vision Studies – and held at WMU – the 3-day camp has long been considered a model for other such camps across the country. Some other events added over the years to the camp include judo, power lifting, and cyling. The MBAA contributes close to $20,000 to fund the camp, attended each year by up to 80 athletes who experience the thrill of competition, and sometimes the thrill of victory. The community is involved through volunteering to help assist the athletes, and news of the annual event raises awareness of Kalamazoo as the site for this event, and for WMU and the MBAA.

Of course, all of the participants are winners, but in addition to building the self esteem and confidence in our young athletes, Sports Camp has also been a breeding ground for national and international award-winning sports stars. We have many success stories that we are proud of; here are a few. Robin Theryoung learned to play goal ball at Sports Camp, competing as an athlete for four years followed by serving as a volunteer on the camp staff for another four years. In 2001, with MBAA support, she competed with the U.S. Goal Ball Team in Sweden, and later that year won the gold in the Pan American games. While later serving as a board member to MBAA and as a graduate student at Western, she trained at the Olympic Training Center and won the gold medal in the 2002 World Goal Ball Championships in Brazil.

Another example is Tyler Merren, who competed in a goal ball tournament in Lithuania with MBAA support. I should also mention how Sherry Gordon, who serves as secretary of our board, is an accomplished goal ball player – and also serves on the board of directors of the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

While Sports Camp makes the most news headlines, we fund other athletes and events. As I mentioned with our Sports Camp alumni, we support individual athletes in participation on U.S. teams who travel abroad for goal ball. We also support an adult bowling league, and tandem bikers.

We continue to look for ways to be relevant to area athletes. Beginning this past year, we started funding outings for younger children – elementary through 8th grade students – in trying out new activities such as wall-climbing, sledding, tobogganing and skating, in addition to goal ball.

And last year, for the first time, we planned and co-sponsored with the Training Center on Oakland Drive, a free seminar for personal trainers and physical therapists providing a half-day workshop on techniques for working with blind and low-vision people who receive such services. We believed that if the trainers had a greater appreciation for this environment, then that could result in more people participating in physical training, competitive and recreational sports.

Fitness professionals from area hospitals, gyms, health clubs, and sports clinics attended our session learning about various eye diseases, how to travel with a visually impaired person, and how to orient their equipment to their clients. Trainers ate their lunch while blindfolded, and also operated the equipment they often use with their clients while blindfolded. They told us the session did, indeed, increase their own comfort level and would better prepare them in their jobs. In addition, this visibility resulted in an invitation to our chairman, John Boes – a teacher and counselor at the Training Center for 27 years and fitness enthusiast – to lecture at Sports Medicine classes at Western.

Where does the money come from to sustain MBAA. We could not operate without the remarkable generosity of two key groups in town: the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and the Harold & Grace Upjohn Foundation. They have long supported our efforts with significant grants, and we are ever grateful to them for their dedication to our work. We also receive individual donations and memorial contributions. And like the original donation to the MBAA, the Lions continue to support our work. We featured a gift by the Kalamazoo Lions Club donating $1,000 in our 2002 annual report.

The MBAA is managed and run by a 12- member board of directors and other volunteers – and no paid staff. We hold monthly meetings throughout the year at the Michigan Commission for the Blind, on Oakland Drive in Kalamazoo. We are affiliated with the United States Association of Blind Athletes, headquartered in Colorado Springs whose vision states: We envision a world in which all individuals who are blind or visually impaired have the same opportunities, as do all other people, to discover their athletic potential and pursue their athletic dreams as all other people.

The USABA mission is to increase the number and quality of grassroots-through-competitive, world-class athletic opportunities. They do this by providing athlete and coach identification and support, program and event management, and national and international representation.

We believe that our association provides quality opportunities and support, for both the casual fitness participate to world-class athletic stars.

Last year’s announcement by the American Foundation for the Blind declared Kalamazoo as one of the top three American cities in its Liveable Community Award.” Western Michigan University’s outstanding program, along with other groups in town such as yours, are certainly a reason for this national standing in environmental features creating a high quality of life.

We at the MBAA would like to think that we, too, have had an impact on helping make the Kalamazoo area a more livable place.  Sports Camp had made many people throughout the state aware of the fine reputation of the Kalamazoo area. And from our athletes who compete internationally, we believe we are helping to spread the word to an even broader audience.

Our association will continue to serve local and statewide athletes as we strive to fulfill our mission of improving lives through physical activity. We are proud to call the Kalamazoo area our home, and look forward to improving our services with each year.

I have enjoyed being a part of your dinner program tonight. On behalf of all the MBAA board members, I bring you our best wishes. Thank you.