As Valentin Haüy walked along a Paris sidewalk, he became hungry and veered into a restaurant. A dinner show was in progress and the Frenchman sat near the stage. What Haüy (pronounced haw-WEE) did not expect to see was blind people featured in a comedy routine where they were cruelly ridiculed. He became troubled, yet also pensive, about the plight of the sightless.
Sometime later, he came upon a blind street urchin begging for money. Haüy watched in amazement as the lad felt the raised markings on the coins he gave him, distinguishing the monetary value of each one. Inspiration hit Haüy like a tidal wave. Why couldn’t books be written for the blind with raised letters like coins, allowing them to use their fingers to read?
He took the boy off the streets and using wooden blocks and numbers taught him to read. Eventually, Valentin Haüy established the world’s first school for blind children. But wait, there’s more. A boy named Louis was born to a farmer and harness maker in a rural area of France. One day, 3-year-old Louis was playing with his father’s tools and a strap of leather smacked him in the eye, leading to an infection that spread to his good eye and rendered him blind in both.
A local pastor took an interest in Louis and read him the Bible, and ascertaining the boy had a good mind, enrolled him in Haüy’s school. Louis had already studied Haüy’s method of reading, then learned of a French army captain who taught his soldiers to communicate in the field by running their fingers over a series of dots and dashes.
“Louis Braille began adapting these systems into a program of his own; in 1829, at age 20, he published a little book on the Braille method of reading,” according to the book “Forward: Discovering God’s Presence and Purpose in Your Tomorrow” by David Jeremiah.
Another story mentioned in this easily-readable book is that of Dorothea Dix, born in Maine in 1802. She ran away from home at age 12 to escape an alcoholic family and abusive father.
While living with her grandmother in Boston she began teaching at a girl’s school at just 14 years of age. Then she was asked to teach a Sunday school class for women in a prison housing the insane and mentally disturbed.
“Dorothea determined with all her heart to help these wretched castaways from society, and she devoted the rest of her life to a relentless vision for prison reform for the mentally ill,” Jeremiah details in “Forward.” Dix traveled more than 60,000 miles reporting and testifying about prison conditions to state and federal officials. When her proposals for improvement were voted down in legislatures time and again, she didn’t give up but redoubled her efforts.
Nineteenth century education reformer and U.S. Rep. Horace Mann once noted Dix had a “divine magnetism.” After serving as a nurse in the Civil War until it ended, she was 63 years old and weighed in at 95 pounds — yet she was far from finished. Dix also traveled abroad speaking up for the mentally ill, and in the last 50 years of her life actually did not have a home — she simply slept in one of the 123 asylums and hospitals she had founded.
“It would seem all my work is never done,” she said near the end of her life. Still, she kept toiling with an ardor and vision to see mental health resources established internationally, and due to the huge sacrifices she made it paid off. Today, millions of people around the globe suffering from mental ailments have hope because of little-known Dorothea Dix.
Some may wonder why a column is being penned almost entirely from just a couple of stories in an inspirational book. Allow me to frame it this way: my wife Teresa says you get to celebrate not just one day, but every day, in your birthday month. So … since January is a month of new beginnings (and also her birthday month), why not share stories as we begin the new year that relate how it’s oftentimes not the high and mighty who truly effect change, but average people who see a critical need and dream of a way to make things better? What is it in our world — i.e., our community, town, city or state — that needs a fresh look or start or change, and what can we do about it? It’s just food for thought.
Early one morning about dark-thirty last week I was driving and listening to the radio.
A news item came on WLJA-FM about a theft of around 1,000 trading cards from a Woodstock specialty store catering to collectors. The owner said the cards — of Pokémon characters, vintage baseball players and modern-era NBA stars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — were worth almost $120,000.
At this point, you guys who are around my age are wondering why we didn’t save all those old baseball cards, right?
However, here’s where the story takes a turn and becomes “good news.” One of the store’s youngest customers heard about the theft, had his mother drive him there and said this to the owner: “Mr. Bob, I want to give you this … I’m so sorry your store was robbed, and to help you out I want to give you two Pokémon cards to get started again.”
The store owner said the donation “made my heart sing … to have this kind of community love and support means everything.”
Valentin Haüy, Louis Braille, Dorothea Dix — and a little boy with a Pokémon card collection — didn’t have to go the extra mile.
But they did it anyway.
Why not us?