Creative Volunteering Reaps Rewards
Donating time or skills is usually as easy as finding a need, signing up and showing up. But living in a world without one of your five senses can make that difficult. Mel Finefrock wanted to find a way to volunteer where she didn’t feel like a liability. Mel is blind, so volunteer opportunities fitting her specific abilities are limited.
“I’ve been at an event where we were boxing food and it felt chaotic to me. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of noise and not knowing the room very well, I didn’t feel like an asset there,” the Richardson, Texas, State Farm® employee says.
Mel has hereditary cone/rod dystrophy. Half of her family has it going back 11 generations. “I started with a considerable amount of vision. I knew colors and objects, but since they knew my sister and I were going to go blind, we learned Braille and how to use a cane at a young age.”
Mel has light perception and can see certain colors, such as a deep blue sky, a dark green lawn or a red fire engine. When Mel was a child, she loved to draw, but when she began to lose her vision, she moved to writing as a creative outlet.
“I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, but I think a lot of times my stories and poems come from an image in my mind. I couldn’t preserve it satisfactorily through drawing or photography, so I turned to writing,” Mel says.
Mel has participated in a disability-focused creative writing contest, Pen 2 Paper, hosted by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) since 2010. So, it made sense that Mel would donate her time to the organization that supports those with disabilities and she could use her expertise in creative writing, editing and living with a disability.
Mel submitted a piece to Pen 2 Paper in 2010 called “The Color of Music” about how a blind girl and deaf boy communicated. It received an honorable mention. Then Mel won first place with a poetry piece submitted in 2012 called “Optical Illusions,” which shared her view of the world as her eyesight failed – floating T-shirts, mistaking a small tree for a person, dreaming in color.
“I have a little light perception and at the time was going through a lot of vision loss,” Mel shares.
In 2016, Mel won first place in the nonfiction category for a piece she submitted about her relationship with a physical therapist after an accident she had in 2014. Following these successes, the Pen 2 Paper coordinators had propositioned her to be a voluntary judge, but the timing was never right.
Finally, last year Mel felt she could volunteer some time to judge the contest. She devoted 15-20 hours judging the poetry and nonfiction categories, the two categories she excelled in as a participant. Overall, Pen 2 Paper received 240 submissions in three categories: Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry.
“I finally felt like I was in my element. I could do the work in the comfort of my little apartment while sipping Earl Grey tea and enjoying a breeze from my open sliding glass door,” she says. “It felt like coming home. I’d read stories and learn about artists with disabilities. We were giving them a voice. It was really fulfilling.”
Winners receive a gift and their pieces are posted on the website. When Mel won for poetry, she received a book of poems by a poet with Cerebral Palsy.
The CTD works to make Texas a better place for people with disabilities through governmental advocacy, public education and outreach and collaboration. The CTD adopted the arts as a means of advocacy, resulting in Pen 2 Paper, Cinema Touching Disability, and the Very Special Arts of Texas collaborates with Malvern Books in Austin to host the Lion and Pirate open mic series, which Mel recently participated in by reading two of her poems from her book, “Patchwork Poetry.”
“The combination of all my poems in my book is a self-portrait. I wanted to give them a glimpse of who I was,” she says.