Serving with Liberty: A Day at the MFA

Liberty Mutual volunteers pose with MABVI staffers Kyle Robidoux and Jen Buchanan outside the MFA

Liberty Mutual volunteers pose with MABVI staffers Kyle Robidoux and Jen Buchanan outside the Museum of Fine Arts

Post by Grant Johnson, Senior Financial Analyst for Liberty Mutual in Boston

Being new to Liberty Mutual, this year was my inaugural experience with the “Serve with Liberty” employee community service program. When I took a look at the available options, I knew I didn’t want to cop out and simply pick an event that was as close to where I lived as possible. Sure, the convenience of picking such a place sounded appealing, but volunteering at its core shouldn’t be about what’s convenient to you; the reason you’re contributing your time is to benefit and convenience the lives of those who actually need it. Because of that mindset, I wanted to select something that I felt would have both an immediate and lasting impact on those I, along with the other volunteers, would be dedicating the day to. That’s when I came across an event called “Feeling for Form.”

From the onset, I saw that the event took place at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Being a fan of art myself, this sparked my interest. As I got to reading about what would be taking place over the course of the experience, I learned that “Feeling for Form” was an art exhibit directed towards those who were blind or visually impaired. I’ll be first to admit that when I first think of art, I think of the visuals it represents – the vibrancy of the watercolors in an impressionist painting or the crudeness and rudimentary detail of a Neolithic sculpture. We tend to not even think of what art might hold in any other sense. So when I started to think of how regularly I take for granted the ability to capture these things in my life, it became important to me to help those who aren’t as fortunate in allowing them to partake in that shared passion and enjoyment. I signed up to volunteer right away.

A low vision support group member touches a sculpture at the MFA Feeling for Form programOver the following couple weeks, I communicated with Kyle Robidoux, the organizer of the event and Director of Volunteer and Support Group Services at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), about how the day might play out and what to expect. He sent along the day’s itinerary in which the volunteers would lead MABVI Low Vision Peer Support Group members from Sharon and Stoughton around the MFA. He explained how great this event was and how much the members look forward to it each year. The members in this case were mostly seniors who have either been visually impaired for years or who have recently started adjusting to their new lifestyles. This being the case, the grandchild in me wanted to make sure the members we were helping had an awesome time.

Fast forward to Monday, May 4th. We spent the time before the start of the event introducing ourselves to Kyle and his team, along with learning about MABVI and the multitude of services they offer. It was pretty amazing to hear about all of the things the people in this organization are able to accomplish and all of the individuals they’re able to help with the limited resources they have. We were also given a brief tutorial on how to properly guide and communicate with those who were visually impaired.

MABVI low vision support group members and staff touch a sculpture at the MFA while a Liberty Mutual volunteer looks onBefore long, the members arrived by shuttle bus, and we were there to greet them. The first member I was able to help off was Cecile who informed me after introductions and some small talk that she would like me to be her date for the day. Again, being a grandkid at heart, there was no way I could turn her down.

Each pairing, consisting of a member and volunteer, was given the option of two “Feeling for Form” exhibits being offered that day: European art from the 18th and 19th centuries with a focus on French and Roman influence or the history of scholars and noblemen from 15th-16th century China. I quickly learned that Cecile had always dreamed of going to China – exhibit number two it was.

A low vision support group member touches a sculpture at the MFA Feeling for Form programAfter our group warmed up to the process of leading our members through the MFA, we first arrived at two Chinese sculptures from the Ming Dynasty, one of a priest and one of a scholar. Each member was able to put on a pair of gloves in order to examine the statues with their hands as our group’s guide explained the history behind the pieces. As the members felt out the different grooves and shapes of the figures, we would all chip in at explaining what it was they were touching, whether it was the long, withering beard of the Confucian scholar or the tall, worn Hanfu rested on the priest’s head. The collective “oohs and aahs” of the members was pretty neat to experience as we noticed their facial expressions playing out their own visualizations of the sculptures.

An MFA guide speaks while a support group members touches a sculpture and a Liberty Mutual volunteer looks onFrom here we traveled on to visit an example of a life-sized representation of a Chinese nobleman’s house from that era. As the members took a seat to rest, our guide explained the set-up of the complex which included a courtyard that served as the main shared-space of the residence along with individual rooms and the purposes they served. These rooms included a lounge for the nobleman and his guests of equal or worthy socioeconomic status, a dining room, separate men’s and women’s living quarters, and a study. Between the side conversations with Cecile as we ventured to each location and the explanations from the guide, I was learning quite a bit. Within each room, we as a group were taught how it would be utilized and who would be allowed inside, while also allowing the members to feel the craftsmanship of various pieces of furniture or other works that could have existed in the rooms. The members were sharp on their game at asking a ton of questions about the time period that even stumped our guide on occasion.

A Liberty Mutual volunteers pushes a low vision support group member in a wheelchair as the MFA guide speaks to the groupAfter what felt like a few minutes, but in reality was a couple of hours, our time with the exhibit was over. I remember Cecile pulling me in to ask if that meant we would be leaving them or if we could stay for lunch. To a relieved smile and quick laugh, I assured her that we would be joining everyone for lunch and that she was still stuck with me for a little while.

We led our members back down to the museum’s cafeteria where we were allowed a chance to catch a bite to eat and chat with one another. Being someone who always enjoys a chance to converse with the older generation, it was incredibly enjoyable and fascinating to learn about Cecile’s life. She and I sat there for the entire lunch hour learning about each other, whether it was talking about our favorite childhood memories, the similarities between her home state of Maine and mine of Minnesota, or how we would prefer to spend a day if we didn’t have any plans. She even jokingly quipped that though the transition over the past couple years of not being able see was hard on her, eating dinner was now fun and exciting because when she would grab a can of soup to prepare, she wouldn’t know what flavor it was until she started eating it.

The Liberty Mutual volunteers, low vision support group members, and MABVI staff sit at a long table

Before long, lunch had wrapped up and the day with the members was just about over. As I walked Cecile back up to the main lobby and out to where the shuttle had pulled up, she asked if she could take me home with her – she really needed some work done to her garden now that the weather was cooperating. I reassured her that if I were to head down to Sharon, her door would be the first stop I would make. It was at that point she gave me her exact address and unit number along with the times she’s usually around during the week – the lady was quick.

With that, Cecile and I said our goodbyes, as did the other volunteers and the members they helped guide through the exhibits. As the shuttle took off, we volunteers were all able to smile and chat about how great of a time we had, including the memorable anecdotes we had with the members.

Kyle gave a quick debriefing and genuinely thanked us for our help. He knows how much these little excursions mean to members at MABVI and encouraged us to share word of the organization and how to get involved. I know I speak for each volunteer who helped out that day in saying that it was truly a memorable and impactful experience not only for us, but for the members as well.

Inspired by Grant’s story and interested in becoming a volunteer for MABVI? Even an hour or two every week or month can make a huge difference to a person with visual impairment in your community. To learn more and to apply, visit mabvi.org/volunteer.

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