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March 15, 2004
Valley Residents Pioneer Birding for the Blind
EDINBURG, Texas — Supported by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant funding, a group of visually impaired people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is breaking new ground in what may seem an unlikely area-competitive birdwatching for the blind.
Volunteers say the birding experience is galvanizing visually impaired participants into a new, more confident outlook on life, a trend they hope will spread across Texas and the nation.
"We don’t want to have people feel sorry for us," said Gladie Cruz of Edinburg, a member of a 12-person team of visually impaired birders. "We want to be out there, independent, doing different stuff, learning things like birding. We want to let other people know about this, how it can help them get out of the house, get out of depression and motivate them to try new things."
The idea has taken wing from its genesis at the new World Birding Center site in Edinburg, which has an exhibit with audio bird calls and Braille text. After the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands opened last spring, visually impaired visitors found they could spend a few minutes hearing bird songs at the indoor exhibit, then step outside to listen for the real thing at the lush wetlands.
This spring, the group persuaded coordinators of TPWD’s Great Texas Birding Classic to create what is believed to be the world’s first birding competition for the visually impaired. The ’Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament’ will take place April 18 on the Texas coast. At least three teams of visually impaired Valley residents will compete, the Rio Grande Kingfishers (to which Cruz belongs), the Tweety Birds, and the White Doves.
Although "blind birding" may sound unusual, the world’s best birders often first identify the presence of a bird by its call and then look to see the bird. Birding Classic teams often start at midnight and bird through the night by ear, so identifying birds solely by sound is already an accepted birding practice.
The Kingfishers were encouraged to learn birding by the nonprofit Rensselaerville Institute. The institute supports community volunteers it calls "Sparkplugs" to help schoolchildren, disadvantaged youth, people with visual impairments and other audiences in the Valley learn through nature outings.
The institute received a $30,000 grant from TPWD’s Community Outdoor Outreach Program (CO-OP), which helps build relationships with non-traditional constituencies such as urban youth, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, often through hands-on nature outings. That grant fueled a $2,000 mini-grant to the Kingfishers, along with grants to other groups through the institute’s Real Time Community Change program.
But what has happened with the Kingfishers has gone beyond birding and the outdoors, says institute South Texas Director Eric Ellman.
"They’re getting out into nature and getting other people out into nature; that was the intent of the CO-OP grant," Ellman said.
"But the changes are far more profound in terms of what’s happening to their lives. There are something like 37,000 blind or visually impaired people in the Valley, a group of people that has largely lived in isolation. But now they are getting out into the community and meeting new people, doing new things. They have a meeting this week with the head of the McAllen transit organization to look at how to get more visually impaired people on buses, for example."
Ellman said the blind birders group has been asked to train the local staff of the Texas Commission for the Blind, which is scheduled to spend the entire day with them on March 26 to learn how to incorporate birding and nature outings into commission programs. They are also working with Texas Audubon to create a Tip Sheet about birding for the visually impaired.
"This group, and the birding idea they have pioneered, is becoming a force for positive change in the visually impaired community," Ellman said.
The department also awarded the institute a $36,000 Conservation Action Grant for the institute’s Colonias Wildlife Education Initiative to serve children in low-income housing communities along the Rio Grande. Children in the Madero Colonia near Mission are working to turn their community into "Sanctuario Madero," and have asked city officials to declare the Chachalaca the official bird of the colonia.
The institute has also used TPWD funds to support a gifted and talented students program at Leal Elementary near Mission. Teacher Gloria Garcia leads a project where students are studying birds in the field, in the library and on the Internet to prepare for a "mini-classic" bird identification tournament. Her efforts to work with a blind student in her class last school year ultimately inspired the blind birding program that is now spreading in the Valley.
Finally, the institute is using TPWD grant funds for a project involving the children of incarcerated fathers. Working in cooperation with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Brownsville, the kids are starting a virtual birding and nature program involving the Internet. Part of the purpose is for the kids to encourage their fathers to pursue education to be able to get jobs when they get out of jail.
Named for its headquarters in Rensselaerville, New York, the Rensselaerville Institute has been described as the "think tank with muddy boots." Its mission statement includes, "show organizations how to set targets, measure their progress, and change their behavior to achieve quantum leaps in performance" and "enable communities to harness their own resources to improve people’s lives in sustainable ways."
For more information about TPWD grants, call (512) 912-7124 or see the department Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/grants/).
Would-be Sparkplugs with ideas for potential funding through the Rensselaerville Institute’s Real Time Community Change program should contact its McAllen office at (956) 630-4514, or see the institute Web page for general information (http://www.rinstitute.org/).
For information about birding for the visually impaired, contact Gladie Cruz with the Kingfishers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 584-2760.
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