red, white, and blue star with initials B V A

BVA’s 75th National Convention became a causality of COVID-19 when the decision to cancel the gathering was made on May 8. In lieu of the annual convention, BVA hosted a series of successful virtual Zoom webinars on Zoom on August 10, 12, and 18-20 that were also live streamed on Facebook and drew audiences in the hundreds.

We kicked off the series with an Introduction to Zoom on August 10 in order to help our members become accustomed to navigating and using Zoom with limited or no vision. Instruction was provided by Doug Jaeger and Paul Thompson of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center. The session included how to mute and unmute, how to raise a virtual hand to comment or ask a question, and how to utilize the Question and Answer and chat functions.

On Wednesday August 10, we had two speakers join us from the NASA Johnson Space Center – Lead Scientist Dr. Steve Laurie and Mission Control Center Systems Operation Manager Tracy Minish. Dr. Laurie explored Spaceflight Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS), a condition experienced by astronauts during long-duration spaceflight resulting in vision changes, folds in the retina, and swelling around the optic nerve. Tracy Minish spoke about his experience being the Mission Control Systems Operation Manager while also being legally blind.

Tuesday, August 18 featured three different caregiver sessions aimed at supporting the caregivers of our members. Travis Wilson, Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinator at the Boise, Idaho VA Medical Center hosted the first session, “What Happens When a Caregiver Needs a Caregiver.” He highlighted the various programs and resources that caregivers can utilize to care for themselves, even during the COVID-19 crisis. Following Travis, Gary Barg of Today’s Caregiver joined us for a second year in a row to host a Caregiver Panel along with Richard Tapping, Vice President of Vispero and Don Overton, Executive Director of BVA. They spoke about the experiences of caregivers and various solutions available for them. Finally, Kelly Golden, Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist, and Trudi Valdez, VIST Coordinator, both with the Albuquerque, New Mexico VA Medical Center spoke about Enabling vs. Empowering. Caregivers naturally tend to become enabling; however, empowering needs to be the focus so that our blinded veterans may achieve their independence potential. All three sessions featured a Q&A session at the end.

On Wednesday, August 19, BVA Board and Headquarters staff hosted a virtual conference which included welcoming remarks from BVA National President Tom Zampieri, an invocation and remembrance of the deceased from the National Chaplain, Ron Lester, and video remarks from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, House Committee on Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, House Committee Ranking Member Phil Roe, M.D., Senate Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester, updates from Tom Zampieri and BVA Auxiliary National President Sandy Krasnodemski, and, finally, the Executive Director’s State of the Organization report.

Thursday, August 20 concluded the series of Virtual Webinars with three session highlighting VA services. Dr. Paul Lawrence, VA Under Secretary for Benefits, explored the VBA system and answered questions pertaining to veterans’ benefits. Next, Tom Howard, Chief of Staff of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) spoke about what the NCA is and the qualifications to be buried in an NCA Cemetery. Finally, Jason Latona, Chief of Specially Adapted Housing (SAH), spoke about VA loan guaranty housing grant programs available to blinded veterans as well as the new eligibility updates to the grant programs recently signed by President Donald Trump.

All of the sessions were well received by BVA members and attendees. BVA member Gary Schoelerman stated that “each session was better than the one before.”
Thank you to everyone who was able to attend, thank you to all of our panelists, and a special thank you to all of our sponsors.

All of the webinars are available to watch on our YouTube playlist here.