The Willy Wonka Factory of Accessibility Production

Chelsea McCarty, an AmeriCorps VISTA Member

I was always a weird kid. And, truthfully, I still am. Rewind the clock to summer of last year, you would have found me deliberating existentially on the meaning of it all at my parent’s house in Ohio County, Kentucky. I’d dramatically wake up and look out my window thinking: “What’s the meaning of life?” To be fair, I had just left an unpleasant experience with my former post-grad occupation. And, probably more to the dramatic air of my life back then was the landscape I was dropped in to. My parents live in the country on an 80-acre farm, though we don’t farm it. The sunsets spread the span of the horizon as far as the eye can see and the wind softly rustles trees deep into the forest, concealing countless mysteries. It was great, but of course, it couldn’t last.

Alas, my mother, in a motherly attempt to get me out of the house, sent me innumerable job applications day after day, and would hassle me until I applied for them. I pretended to apply to a lot, saying I was really excited about this or that. Then, one day she sent me something that read “Braille Tales Coordinator” at some place called The American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, my destination city. “Braille? That sounds cool!” I thought, a thought I genuinely meant. I hardly noticed the details about it being an AmeriCorps program, and I went ahead and applied—real applied, not just pretend applied to appease my mother.

A call came soon after. I had gotten an interview! I had to take the call outside, because of the bad reception in the house, and being home alone I’ll embarrassingly admit I jumped for joy at the prospect. Barefoot. With my hair in a bun. And while wearing the same clothes I had worn the last three days. Hey, it was another time, people.

I put on my best smile, a fanciful outfit, and my boss-lady red-orange Michael Kors heels and got in the car to head to Louisville. Being a two-hour drive, my family, as my family does, made an event of the trip. My aunt Debbie and my mother, Lisa, both came along to offer me support. I arrived at the Printing House, SUPER early, so we went and antiqued for a minute to calm my nerves.

It didn’t work. I waited in the lobby for Bob Bel-something, I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce the “k-n-a-p” sound of his name. I determined I would avoid mentioning the complicated “Bel-k-nap” so as not to embarrass myself or damage my chances—like a mispronounced name is grounds enough for that. Eye roll, Chelsea.

Bob and I rode the elevator together up to the daunting room where I would have my interview. I talked cheerily about the drive, in my most fancy business-lady voice. “Oh yes, the drive was quite lovely. Oh, no, the traffic wasn’t terrible at all! Quite the contrary, in fact!” Okay, that’s dramatic, but you get the point.

We entered the room, seated at the table were two other women, nice looking sorts, I thought. I was to be interviewed by a team! Add five pounds of stress to my chest. I met the lovely folks, and we began the interview. The three began to tag-team questions, as I gave my best answers, in my business-lady voice. I talked about my experiences, problem-solving skills, what my goals are, what I wanted to accomplish, my experiences, my problem-solving skills, what my goals are—oh, did I repeat myself? Have I already said that? Am I talking in circles? Am I talking? Are words coming out of my mouth? They’re all looking at me. Am I still talking?

After my confusing self-analysis of the situation, I realized we were done. Did I do well? The stress felt like how gravity must feel to comets that enter our atmosphere—whooommmmmm, crashhhh, heavy, heavy, heavy, bang (comet sounds). Robotic in motion, I followed Bob out of the office and into the hallway. “Wanna see a tour? I’ll show you around,” spaketh Bob.

“A tour? Of course! I’d love to!” At this point, I took care to mention my aunt and my mother were sitting in the car waiting for me to get out, and I’ll be darned if Bob didn’t invite them along! After we met them in the lobby, we began what would be the tour that sealed my fate at APH, pending the job of course.

Another noteworthy fact about me is that I am wildly obsessed with the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It is genuinely my favorite movie of all time, and I often tell people that if they can understand that movie, they can understand me. I’m not even sure what that means when I say it, but I know it’s true. The movie is jam-packed with timeless quotes, crazy scenes, a wild, creative genius, and so much more I can’t even go there. Anything I say won’t do it justice.

What I didn’t realize when I stood with Bob waiting for my aunt and mother to come inside was that I was about to walk head-on into a real-life Willy Wonka factory, but for accessible productions.

Bob began telling us the story of APH, a timeless tale—the origins in the Kentucky School for the Blind, the quota funds, the products, the services, and everything else that would come to be common knowledge to me. My eyes boggled at the sights I was beholding for the first time. The ancient Heidelberg machine, the elevator that leads to nowhere, the helter-skelter arrangement of floors and rooms throughout the building, the ancient, giant fire doors—it all came together for me as an image of something great. It was a place unlike any other I had ever been before; the picture I began to develop in the dark room of my mind formed a conglomeration of legacy, antiquity, innovation, fantasy, and endless possibilities for the future.

I saw the Talking Books Studio in the basement, a hidden gem within a building of mystery. I saw the sound booths where when you shut the door behind you time stops, and your breath is the only sound. The rooms of the studios left almost entirely as they were made some fifty—or more—years ago. If those walls could talk, the knowledge their narrators have given them over time could fill a library. The voices of those long gone narrators still echo within those walls, if only you listen close enough. Just being in the studio, even today, fills me with the most powerful experience, especially when Jack Fox is reading.

As we wandered the enchanted hallways, I felt like a young Charlie Bucket. Where other people might have seen an old building, I saw history. I saw the dominating grace of an organization that stood the test of time, a place that had persisted through economic depressions, wars, presidents, and space travel. And, above all, I saw a place that never stopped serving the population for which it first opened its doors 160 years ago. It was my very own Chocolate Factory. I was in love.

Seven months later, I may still be that weird kid with my head in the clouds, but I feel as though I’ve made a place for myself at APH. Even though I’m only an AmeriCorps VISTA, I’m treated like a part of the family here. The same people who’ve been here for forty years greet me as warmly as they would an old friend. I’m surrounded by people who love what they’re doing, who are happy to come to work each day, and who are determined to continue APH’s mission of supporting the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired. I still may not know what it’s all about, but it certainly gives me reflection to see so many people whose lives revolve around making life better for others. I feel at home at APH, and like I’m really am a part of the family. I’m eternally thankful to everyone who has made my time here special, from the smiles behind the desks, to the friendly waves behind the machines—you guys are awesome.

With love,

The Charlie Bucket of APH (self-titled)

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