HKNC Connect

Vol. 10 No. 1 Winter 2020

A Publication of the Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths and Adults 

Welcome to HKNC’s newsletter  – CONNECT! We’ll not only be keeping you “connected” to what’s happening at the Center, but we’ll also be telling you about things that are happening of interest to people who are DeafBlind.

Group of people signing I Love You in front of the Helen Keller National Center


Sue Ruzenski smiling and sitting at her desk
Sue Ruzenski

A new year is always an exciting time to anticipate all the opportunities that await us for the coming year.  It is also a time to reflect on the previous year’s accomplishments and endeavors. This is my chance to share with you a few highlights from the past year and some of our plans for the future.
The year 2019 was a time of great momentum and synergy. The key to our success is teamwork.  When the work of many comes together, the result becomes a new creation that is far beyond what one could imagine.

At HKNC, we remain committed to providing high-quality services to consumers attending the Comprehensive Vocational Rehabilitation Program in Sands Point, New York, as well as others who receive services in their home communities.  In addition, through our 12 regional representatives and 8 DeafBlind specialists (and growing), HKNC works collaboratively with state and local service partners, families and other organizations to increase service options and resources to build a national infrastructure responsive to the DeafBlind community.

In this issue of CONNECT! there are many articles about the exciting activities and initiatives that took place at HKNC this past year.  There was the establishment of the National Employment & Business Relations Specialist (NEBRS) position funded by a very generous three-year grant offered to HKNC by the Lavelle Fund for the Blind. There was also a second Community Services Program (CSP) established in California replicating the very successful CSP which has been in the New York metropolitan area for over 20 years supported by the New York State Commission for the Blind. A highlight of the year was HKNC’s collaboration with the very creative and talented filmmaker and director, Doug Roland, whose film “Feeling Through” features, for the first time, a DeafBlind actor in a co-leading role.  Other highlights of the year include national and international visitors who enriched us with their spirit, interest and perspective including the wife of the Prime Minister of Japan.

I am pleased to take this opportunity to announce that HKNC’s federal appropriation of $2.5 million for FY 2020 has been approved by Congress and signed by the President.  These additional monies will be used for the following specific initiatives:
Continued deployment of DeafBlind specialists across the country; establishment of two additional Community Service Programs across the country; establishment of a Technology Research and Innovation Center at HKNC headquarters; establishment of an SSP program for consumers participating in the on-campus program and for staff who are DeafBlind.

Our success was the direct result of a strong letter-writing campaign with the support of many of you, our stakeholders, partners and former participants.  We appreciate the ongoing collaboration and together will continue to strive toward our mission of assisting people who are DeafBlind with the tools to live, work and thrive in the community of their choice.  I would also like to express special thanks to our Congressman Tom Suozzi for his continued support.  Representative Suozzi has championed our request for greater resources and has advocated on our behalf to ensure that HKNC can continue to grow capacity with and among state and local partners and expand service options across the United States.

I invite you to continue reading this issue of CONNECT! for articles expanding on the above topics and how HKNC is continuing to work to increase options, build capacity and improve the quality of services for people who are DeafBlind. The HKNC team and I look forward to 2020 with many exciting goals for continued growth, collaboration and expansion!!  We hope your new year includes connections inclusive of the DeafBlind community and HKNC.
~ Susan Ruzenski, MA, EdD.


Kim Zimmer smiling
Kim Zimmer

This past June, Helen Keller Services (HKS) welcomed a new president and chief executive officer. Kimberly (Kim) Zimmer, formerly chief marketing officer & senior vice president, international development of Goodwill Industries International, Kim succeeds Joseph Bruno who retired.  Bruno served as HKS president and CEO for three years and will continue at the organization as a consultant.

Ms. Zimmer brings more than 15 years of leadership to her new CEO post in the social enterprise and not-for-profit sectors. Prior to Goodwill, Zimmer’s career was focused on organizations that provide programs and services to people who are blind. She served as vice president of Corporate Communications at National Industries for the Blind (NIB).  She also served as vice president of Communications and later chief operating officer at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB) in Washington, DC. In her communications capacity, she increased local, regional and national awareness of CLB and blindness related issues. “I am honored to serve Helen Keller Services as president and CEO,” she said. “My career has been devoted to human service organizations that make a meaningful difference and I look forward to carrying on that tradition at Helen Keller Services.”


A welcome addition to HKNC’s array of national services is the establishment of a Community Services Program (CSP) in Southern California. This new program replicates HKNC’s successful New York Community Services Program.
With a high number of identified individuals who have combined hearing and vision loss, the California-CSP, in collaboration with the California Department of Rehabilitation, provides assessment and training to consumers in their homes, communities and at work. The transdisciplinary team offers job development and short-term support, job placement, skills of daily living, orientation and mobility, and adaptive technology. The staff includes specialists in the fields of blindness and deafness who are proficient in alternative communication methods used by people who are DeafBlind.


Group of women smiling and wearing business attire
L-R: Sue Ruzenski, Akie Abe,
Kim Zimmer and Yukiko Yamanouchi 

This past October, HKNC had the distinct honor and privilege to welcome Mrs. Akie Abe, the wife of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, and Mrs. Yukiko Yamanouchi, the wife of the Ambassador to the U.S., Kanji Yamanouchi, to its headquarters in New York.

During the visit, hosted by Sue Ruzenski and Kim Zimmer, Mrs. Abe and Mrs. Yamanouchi were acquainted with the programs and services offered at the Center and had an opportunity to chat with several participants about their aspirations.  They toured the Training Building and observed some classes in action. While in the Communications Learning Center, Mrs. Abe talked with staff member, Adriana Reali, who is DeafBlind, and got a quick lesson in Haptics. In the Independent Living Department the visitors learned about adaptive

Group of women looking at a braille display
Mrs. Abe learns about braille
displays from a participant

equipment during a tour of the kitchen with Maricar Marquez, supervisor.  Maricar talked about her life experiences as a person who is DeafBlind, and gave examples of how she maintains her independence. In the Technology Department, the visitors met with DeafBlind participants and learned about adaptive technology.  And finally, a stop in the Creative Arts Department where a participant proudly showed Mrs. Abe and Mrs. Yamanouchi the clay print and braille alphabet squares he was working on. On hand also were Mocha, HKNC’s specially trained facility dog and puppy Raphael, guide dog in training. As a remembrance of their visit. Sue Ruzenski presented the visitors with handmade macramé “I Love You” hands. It was a lovely visit and, as Sue said, “Nothing could have prepared us for how warm, caring and engaging Mrs. Abe was with the participants and staff.  We all came away with the feeling that we had made new friends.”

One man and two women smiling
L-R: Chris Woodfill, Kate Macrae and Sue Ruzenski

Among the many other visitors to HKNC headquarters, we also were delighted to welcome Kate Macrae, CEO of ABLE Australia. Kate toured the Training Building, met with staff and then had an opportunity to acquaint them with the services of ABLE Australia.
We are especially thankful to the many consumers and family members who come to visit HKNC headquarters each year to learn about our services. Thank you for including us on your journey; we welcome others to do the same!   


Two men smiling next to the Feeling Through poster
Doug Roland (L) and Robert Tarango (R) 

Inspired by a chance encounter with a DeafBlind man on the streets of Manhattan, writer/director Doug Roland wrote the script for a short film entitled “Feeling Through.” The film is the first ever to cast a DeafBlind person in a co-leading role.  Doug partnered with HKNC in the making of this film and ultimately cast Robert Tarango, a former HKNC participant and current employee, in the role of the DeafBlind man. “Feeling Through” tells the story of the unlikely connection between a teen without a home and a DeafBlind man. It is about the powerful experiences and meaningful relationships we can have, and demonstrates that our capacity to connect transcends our differences.
The “Feeling Through Experience” is a unique and engaging event which includes the screening of a short film and an accompanying documentary about the making of the film and the search for the DeafBlind man who inspired it.  The “Experience” also includes a “talk-back” with the audience including Doug, Robert and others from the community including people who are DeafBlind. Thus far the “Feeling Through Experience” has reached over 1300 participants with fully accessible screenings in 12 different cities from Honolulu, Hawaii, to downtown Manhattan, NY.   We look forward to continue to make connections with new audiences to spread the message of inclusivity and accessibility! Go to the “Feeling Through Experience” on Facebook for news about future events and check out a video on YouTube from Fox 5 in New York.


DeafBlind awareness week poster showing 2 men and 1 woman with a white caneLast year’s Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Week was celebrated both here at HKNC and across the country.  The theme was MAKING CONNECTIONS WITH THE DEAFBLIND COMMUNITY to tie into the theme of the movie “Feeling Through.” Mutually life-changing moments can become reality when you reach out to members of the DeafBlind community.  Sometimes when you least expect it, you experience an interaction that can change your life forever. We want to inspire people to look for those moments and consciously create mutually awe-inspiring connections inclusive of members of the DeafBlind community.
In addition to the main DeafBlind Awareness Week poster, the professionals at Wunderman Thompson Health made two other posters depicting people making that chance connection with a DeafBlind person. These alternate versions are on the HKNC website carousel.  Wunderman took over from Grey Health Group which had produced our DBAW posters pro bono for over 30 years. We are most grateful to Wunderman for continuing that tradition and for all the time and effort they spent to help bring awareness about people who are DeafBlind.


Thanks to a very generous three-year grant from the Lavell Fund for the Blind, this past year saw the establishment of the National Employment and Business Relations Specialist (NEBRS) at HKNC. The national business specialist has several directives including:

  • Establish relationships with national and regional line management and/or human resources professionals in order to streamline and fast track HKNC candidates for interviews and take the mystery out of hiring individuals who are DeafBlind;
  • Collaborate with the HKNC vocational and field services teams to inspire, motivate and prepare HKNC candidates for interviews and employment;
  • Raise awareness, provide market intelligence and collaborate with the vocational services community;
  • Place HKNC job candidates in positions of employment and environments that they enjoy and are able to thrive;

The results thus far have been very positive!  Joseph Melillo, the national employment and business relations specialist, has worked to establish relationships with 29 companies that are getting to know HKNC and the talents and abilities DeafBlind employees can bring to their workforce.
Here’s an example of how the NEBRS goes about creating a hiring environment with a national company. NEBRS and the HKNC NY Community Services Program referred a job candidate to CVS for a retail store associate position. The representative from CVS’ disability hiring program, Abilities in Abundance, and the store manager interviewed the candidate and a 3-month work experience/internship was established.
Guided and encouraged by Elaina Gasparino, HKNC employment specialist, the DeafBlind candidate learned quickly and thrived. The manager of the store was impressed with her work, dedication and focus and she was hired. HKNC and CVS are in the process of formally establishing a national agreement with the goal of CVS hiring other motivated DeafBlind job candidates.
See the next article for another NEBRS success story.


Teamwork is about cooperation and collaboration between different members of an organization. It is a crucial part of a business, as it is important for colleagues to work well together to bring about successful outcomes.

The following article is about how the teamwork between the staff in HKNC’s Community Services Program (CSP) in New York and HKNC’s Joe Melillo, national employment and business relations specialist were able to affect a successful outcome.

Isatou at work in a kitchen
Isatou S.

The staff of the HKNC CSP started working with Isatuo S., when she participated in HKNC’s annual Summer Youth Vocational Program (SYVP) – a six-week vocational program for DeafBlind high school transition-age participants. As part of the SYVP, Isatuo had an internship with Applebees where she developed a passion for working in food services.  With the support of HKNC’s CSP, Isatuo entered a 4-month culinary training program funded by the New York State Commission for the Blind. When she completed the training program, Isatuo began to search for a job but became frustrated when she couldn’t find any work.  She took a subminimum wage job working temporarily until a better opportunity arose.   Joseph Melillo became involved and an internship with Whitson’s Culinary Group, a food services company, was secured for Isatuo in the kitchen of a residential health care facility.

CSP employment specialist, Tammie Christian, states, “I have seen Isatuo grow in independence and in skills gained. She has become part of the team at Whitson’s.  Her confidence continues to grow and all indications and feedback are that she will be hired at the end of her internship.”

Isatou’s supervisor at Whitson’s says that Isatou “is very independent and will be a good team player for us in the future.  She is quick to learn and we are able to depend on her. She is efficient and pleasant to the residents.” Isatuo states: “I travel to work via bus independently. I enjoy working at Whitson’s, communicating with the residents and preparing their food.”

This job is a dream come true for Isatuo and everyone involved is looking forward to her growth in the position.


The Business Guide for Working with Individuals Who Are DeafBlind 

Meeting the employment needs of businesses with candidates who are trained and qualified is one of HKNC’s major goals.  This Business Guide is designed to avoid obstacles when hiring and managing individuals who are DeafBlind. The website also discusses the role of HKNC’s national employment & business relations specialist in partnering with businesses to introduce candidates and HKNC’s support services.
Check it out here.


What’s a little rain? Not enough to deter close to 400 participants in last year’s Helen’s Run/Walk. Wearing ponchos, raincoats, and plastic garbage bags – all had a wet and wonderful time. We were very happy to welcome NY State Senator Anna M. Kaplan (D – 7th Senate District) and NY State Assemblyman, Anthony D’Urso  (D – 16th Assembly District).

Across the country in California, staff members of HKNC’s new Community Services Program supported the event by doing a “virtual” walk in Riverside where they made it to the top of Mount Rubidoux!

In the true spirit of HKNC, numerous staff members (including HKNC’s regional representatives from across the country) worked together to make this event successful raising over $48,000. This money has been allocated to providing essential Support Service Provider assistance for the staff and participants at the Center who are DeafBlind.

This year’s Helen’s Run/Walk will take place on Sunday, April 26, 2020, with beautiful weather requested!!   The Run/Walk is a USATF certified 5K/3.1 miles – Rain or Shine – and promises to be the biggest and best ever!! For more information and registration, please visit our website at


The Helen Keller Services 2019 Annual report can be viewed now.

Helen Keller National Center is a division of Helen Keller Services


March 9 – 20                                       Support Service Providers Training (Part 1- Online). Participation is required for course completion
(Postponed-new date TBD)
March 24 Support Service Providers Training (Part 2 on-site) 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
(Postponed-new date TBD)
April 26      Helen’s Run/Walk 2020 (Postponed new date TBD)
May 10 – 23      Orientation and Mobility Training
(Part 1 – Online)  Participation is required for course completion
May 18 – 22     Confident Living Program 
May 26 – 29      Orientation and Mobility Training (Part 2 Onsite)
June 22      HKS Golf Outing at the Village Club of Lake Success

June 21 – 27, 2020 Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Week 

If you are interested in more information about HKNC’s specialized training programs, please contact your HKNC regional representative. If you would like to reprint any articles from CONNECT!, please send an email to for permission and crediting information HKNC’s mission is to enable each person who is DeafBlind to live, work and thrive in the community of his or her choice.

Please contact our headquarters for more information:
141 Middle Neck Road, Sands Point, NY 11050
Phone: 516-944-8900
Videophone: 516-570-3626
Dr. Susan Ruzenski, Executive Director

Editors: Allison Burrows & Beth Jordan
Photo Credits: Allison Burrows

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Remember: Deaf-Blindness Didn’t Stop with Helen Keller  

cindy witkow

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