Monday, November 23, 2009

Adoption Awareness Month: A Songwriter’s Struggle with Blindness, Adoption & More

by Singer/Song Writer Donna Hill

Born with glaucoma, given up for adoption, blind by twelve, a high school drop-out ... all spelled long odds for an African-American kid in New York City. But, the odds-makers didn’t know Dennis Holston. Dennis (31, Manhattan) boot-strapped his way to a successful life as a computer teacher and artist recruiter. He mentors two teens through Mentoring USA and I Mentor. Now in his third year at the helm of the volunteer-run, nonprofit Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind.

Holston’s leadership is making inroads into the sighted world for blind entertainers. PAD offers scholarships which are funded through sales of the “Sound in Sight” CD, a multi-genre compilation of 18 original tracks and covers by blind musicians. Hear clips at:

Dennis, in his second term as PAD’s president, is dedicated to expanding opportunities for blind entertainers, a vital step for improving acceptance and opportunity for all blind Americans. In 2002, when he was elected Treasurer, PAD was floundering. Dennis became president in 2006. He combed the nation for promising blind recording artists and persuaded eighteen to donate original tracks and covers to “Sound in Sight.”, The CD, a cross-genre compilation, features acclaimed blind musicians including Tampa Bay Idol finalist, Seria Chatters (Tampa), Just Plain Folks Album of the Year finalist, Brooke Fox (Brooklyn) and internationally acclaimed percussionist Jimmy Fontanez (Albany, NY).

“Seventy percent of working age blind Americans are “un”employed,” Holston says, “Only ten percent of blind kids are taught Braille despite strong Braille literacy/success links. There hasn’t been a new, blind American superstar in decades. And, the only famous blind woman most of us know is Helen Keller, who died over fifty years ago.”

“I have always wanted to be a mentor,” says Dennis, who recently re-established contact with his birth family, “I felt that I had a lot to offer young black teens, but I was afraid that the blindness would get in the way. Finally, in 2005, I stopped running. When I got my first kid in 2006, he did not seam to care about the blindness at all. I found out that these teens are just glad that an older man is there to turn to,

Dennis, who writes songs blending pop, R&B and rock, has also had a profound impact on the blind performers he located. Many have taken on leadership roles in PAD. Brooke Fox is vice president. Beth Allred, a decorated University of Colorado (Boulder) grad student in opera performance, is secretary. Seria is on the board of directors along with Mindy Jacobson (NYC), the first blind woman cantor. Harvard grad and acclaimed vocalist Lisa Ostrow (Boston) is the scholarship coordinator.