On January 14th, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, the Louis Braille School hosted one of the monthly After Hours get-togethers for our local Chamber of Commerce here in Edmonds, WA. We knew it would be an unusual event for us. Most of the time we’re involved in fundraisers, but this was more of an open house kind of affair, a chance to mingle in a social setting, eat, and be entertained, along with having an opportunity to explain the school’s mission amidst a display of educational materials.
Chris Coulter entertained wonderfully by singing and playing the organ in our lobby, drawing from a repertoire that spans the entire 20th-century. Her performance reminded us the organ doesn’t get played nearly enough. Chris used to make her living by touring and playing in piano bars. She has enough stories to fill a good-sized book, and knows more songs than stories. Like most artists, she also appreciates fine victuals and partook with gusto of the tasty pizza from Pagliacci’s, gourmet soda from Dry Soda Co., and tomato-basil soup from Scott’s Bar & Grill that were offered to everyone at the After Hours.
Jennifer Wheeler was our hostess who greeted guests as they arrived. Her powers of congeniality are second to none. Guest after guest made a point of telling us how pleasant it was to be met at the entrance by Jennifer and converse with her as the evening went on.
As for our educational displays, many of the guests enjoyed sitting behind our braillers and trying to braille their own names with the help of simple written instructions for beginners. Special lenses fitted to eyewear that simulated visual impairment were also available for people to use.
Another display consisted of stuffed animals given to us by Bunny Arntzen of Kent. Bunny created natural surrounds for taxidermy animals. When her vision began to fail, she donated some the animals to the Louis Braille School in the hope that blind children would enjoy a hands-on understanding of wildlife their eyes could not see.
Mike, our friendly mailman, gave me a mid-afternoon preview of the reactions the display might provoke. My desk is visible to guests as they approach the school and look through the glass panes in the front door. The mailman had his head down a bit, looking at the day’s mail in his hand, and didn’t see the very large stuffed bobcat on my desktop until he was just a few yards away. I won’t exaggerate by claiming he jumped, but I can accurately report he stopped dead in his tracks and his eyes widened before he said “Whoa!” After he recovered, he helpfully suggested we make sure to store our taxidermy animals properly to avoid the experience he had years ago, when he purchased a home formerly owned by a taxidermist who had left behind examples of his work.
“The animals were in a rundown outbuilding and had gotten wet,” he said. “When the weather warmed up there were all sorts of things crawling around in their fur. I burned the whole shack down. Burned it to the ground.”
I thanked him for his concern (with a smile on my face that I hope wasn’t too crooked) as I thought about guests who’d be arriving in a few hours. Thankfully, no animals moved—either of their own volition or from unexpected tenants in their fur.
Another unforgettable sight invariably eliciting a ‘Wow!’ from guests were two slabs of focaccia bread donated by Essential Baking Company of Seattle. I describe them as “slabs” because they came straight off the baking pans, uncut, and measuring more than two feet long and a foot-and-a-half wide. Essential also gave us a few artisan loaves to serve as door prizes. Brett Wheeler, one of our students, determined the winners by drawing business cards the guests had deposited in a glass bowl. Lucky Lew Lemire, pictured below, was one of the winners and took home a salted loaf filled with rosemary.
Barbara Mercer won a loaf filled with olives. She got a big laugh from the crowd by telling Brett, “Thank you for drawing my card. I never win anything!”
I’d forgotten to ask the bakery for paper sleeves, so Carolyn Meyer, our school’s Director, cleverly improvised by using large mailing envelopes. It was one of many spontaneous actions of the evening that made the event fun and memorable.
Brett’s sister, 7-year-old Lyndsey, won hearts as the evening’s popcorn girl, single-handedly turning out mounds of hot buttered popcorn for the crowd. Lyndsey is mature for her age. She’s unflappable and very comfortable around adults. When our in-house popcorn machine—which has no on/off switch—started spewing out too large a torrent of popcorn, Lyndsey had the presence of mind to calmly pull the plug from the socket. It was all any adult could have done.
The After Hours was successful in many ways. A number of people said they wanted to support the Louis Braille School in the future, be it as volunteers, gift-makers, donating material goods, or helping to create new fundraisers. The evening confirmed what we knew in advance: That face-to-face interaction is the best way to present the work of the school to people and to establish or deepen our relationships within the community. One of our guests, Susan Colton, put it best in an email she sent us the day after the event:
“I liked meeting one of the families [of one of the students], and also business community members. I’m sure a lot of effort went in to putting it together. However, you managed to create the feeling as if it were a home visit with family and friends.”