Employees at NIB associated nonprofit agencies take great pride in the work they do, particularly on behalf of the military and veterans. But their pride — and interests — don’t stop when the workday ends. For many, employment at NIB associated agencies empowers them to not only live more independent lives, but to make meaningful contributions to their communities in some unique and surprising ways.

Emergency Response and Education

Carla Abbott in taekwondo uniform with young student

Carla Abbott, a line manager at The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., in Seattle, is a taekwondo grand master 8th degree black belt. In addition to being one of the few women in the country to have earned the level – 9th degree is the highest level that can be achieved – Abbott, certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a member of the City of Redmond, Washington, community emergency response team (CERT).

She started learning taekwondo 40 years ago while working as a janitor at a Salvation Army where a taekwondo class she saw piqued her interest. “I originally wanted to be a female wrestler, but started to take taekwondo classes instead” says Abbott.

She’s glad she did.

“Taekwondo completely changed my outlook of the world. Being visually impaired, I wanted to prove to everyone that I could do everything all by myself. I’ve always been visually impaired, but it was getting worse, and I wasn’t handling it very well. Taekwondo taught me that it’s OK to ask for help,” says Abbott.

Practicing taekwondo, she says, taught her to trust others, adapt, and navigate the world. The philosophical underpinnings of martial arts, Abbott says, taught her self-confidence, how to regulate emotions, and avoid conflict.

Without her taekwondo experience, says Abbott, she would never have believed she could become a FEMA-certified CERT member. The City of Redmond CERT training consists of 24 hours of courses over a series of eight weeks that teach community members basic disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.

“We learned how to put out fires, how to move people out of buildings on chairs, how to examine buildings for safety, and how to mark buildings as searched,” says Abbott. “It was a really good program.”

The program holds an expo every summer where team members participate in various scenarios. Abbott participates in the scenarios to help others understand how to address the needs of a person who is blind during a disaster. “For example, there’s an earthquake, and glass is shattered everywhere around me, my shoes are across the room, and I can’t navigate to get out. It helps team members understand what they need to do to help me get out safely.”

Abbott has also spoken with city officials to help them understand the essentials people who are blind may need at a shelter in the event of an emergency. “For example, how will they get to the shelter? How will they find their cots? Shelter volunteers will need to escort them to their cots and give them landmarks so they can find them again. Shelters should have extra food on hand to feed guide dogs, that sort of thing,” explains Abbott.

It’s rewarding work, she says. “Taekwondo taught me that it’s OK to ask for help. Now, I can teach others the questions to ask so that they can help people in need more effectively.”

Providing a Safe Haven

Nelida Torres with her son

“I strongly believe in the sanctity of marriage,” says Nelida Torres, a survivor of domestic violence. “But when my son’s physical health was in danger, I had to make a decision.” For the sake of her safety and that of her son, Torres divorced her husband and moved with her son from New York City to Orlando, Florida.

Shortly after arriving in Orlando, she learned she had glaucoma and turned to Lighthouse Central Florida for help. “They were there for me. They taught me how to do everything,” she says. “I miss and mourn my eyesight, but it doesn’t limit me.”

Torres began volunteering at the Lighthouse, eventually being hired to work part time. Today, she works full time in customer care. “The Lighthouse gave me freedom, independence, the will to live,” she says. “I saw others like me doing things, and I knew I could do it too.”

About five and a half years ago, she opened her home to women with and without children who were fleeing domestic violence. “I received so much. I knew that it was time to give back,” she says.

“I ran an ‘underground railroad’ because many of them weren’t safe,” she says. The women found Torres through her church, and although she sheltered women without children, she especially liked sheltering women with children so the kids could see how her son not only survived his experience, but thrived.

The underground railroad ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but then a friend introduced Torres to Aspire Health Partners, a nonprofit organization. “Many of the people who come to Aspire have experienced domestic violence, substance abuse, or have survived human trafficking,” explains Torres. Her role is to sit and listen to their stories.

“They just want safety and to know that they are loved – they’re often scared for their lives.” In addition to counseling, Aspire helps people find jobs, build their resumes, find clothing suitable for interviews, and more.

Aspire also had to close its shelter because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped Torres who, with support from Lighthouse employees, her community, and her church, has been filling her garage with donations of food, clothes, crafts, and more. “The outpouring from everyone has been incredible. When my garage gets full, friends come with vans and help distribute the donations.”

Torres also volunteers at The Mustard Seed of Central Florida, a nonprofit whose mission is to help rebuild the lives of families and individuals who have suffered disaster or personal tragedy by providing household furnishings and clothing. Torres, who is fluent in English and Spanish, helps translate when needed.

“I want people – and especially my son – to know that they should never give up,” says Torres. “There is always a silver lining of hope, faith, and persistence.”

“We aren’t defined by our disabilities, our experiences. I choose to be the person I am. I choose to be a warrior, a comforter, someone who can share hope,” she says. “You can too. Never give up.”