The DeKalb County Public Library invited two special guests to its summer reading program on Thursday to celebrate this year’s Alabama Bicentennial.
This week’s event focused on teaching children in the community about reading in Braille and “America’s First Lady of Courage” – Helen Keller.
Keller’s great-great niece, Keller Johnson Thompson, traveled from Tuscumbia, Alabama to give a presentation on the life of her famous family member who overcame her struggles of living as both blind and deaf.
“As I grew up learning about Helen Keller, I wanted to learn more and more and more,” Thompson said. “I went to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and after that I decided that I wanted to go work for the Helen Keller Foundation.”
The Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education is a non-profit corporation in Birmingham, Alabama that strives to save sight, speech and hearing for individuals through medical research and using the legacy of Keller to demonstrate their willingness to see the possibilities in all situations.
Thompson presented to the children an outline of Keller’s life, beginning with the loss of her hearing and vision as a toddler and up to her death in 1968.
As a child with little to no communication, Keller acted out in aggression and misbehaviors until her family was able to find help in her teacher of many years, Ann Sullivan. After learning to be self sufficient and to even read, write and speak, Keller was able to become a world-wide activist, she said.
Thompson ended by emphasizing the legacy that Keller left in the world and answering several questions from children in the audience.
DeKalb County Public Library Director Cynthia Hancock said she met Thompson while she was a school media specialist in Jackson County and saw the importance of what she offered communities in her presentation.
“We were so happy to have Keller Johnson Thompson, the great-great niece of Helen Keller, to come and present a program on the life of Helen Keller for our Summer Reading Program,” Hancock said. “This event coincided with our Alabama 200 Bicentennial Celebration, and Keller shared a wealth of knowledge of her great-great aunt.”
DeKalb County President Ricky Harcrow and Fort Payne Council President Brian Baine attended Thursday’s event to thank the visitors for their educational trip to Fort Payne.
Harcrow presented Thompson with a framed painting of the DeKalb County Library to commemorate her visit and impact on the community.
“I was very appreciative of Ricky Harcrow and Brian Baine taking the time to attend,” she said. “Their support of the DeKalb County Library and our programs is amazing.”
The program’s second guest, Jim Bob Rutlin, a graduate from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, demonstrated to the children how a person with vision impairment can read books with Braille letters and type on a typewriter, similar to Helen Keller. Rutlin was accompanied by Teresa Lacy and Jane Ogles also from the AIDB who showed the children books specifically made to be read by hand.
Rutlin said he was just four-years-old when he first started at the institute in 1974 and eventually graduated in 1989. He now works part-time at the Alabama Instructional Resource Center for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama.
“Going to the school for the blind has helped me with everything in life,” Rutlin said. “It’ll teach you about life, teach you about friendships and how you can make friends.”
Rutlin said he’s loved his time attending and working at the facility in Talladega, and used the institute's motto: “Deaf. Blind. Limitless.” to emphasis what Keller means to the students and faculty at AIDB.
The book Rutlin chose to read was “The Wheels on the Bus” and also sang with the children.
“Jim Bob had a wonderful time, and I think he wowed the audience with his infectious personality,” Lacy, director of the AIRC, said.
Hancock said the children loved Rutlin’s presentation and it was great to have him read to the them.
“It was a great day for our library and the Fort Payne community,” she said.