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Helen Keller Festival Carries on Legacy of First Lady of Courage

  • Pat Sanders

Helen Keller began life as a healthy child, but at an early age, lost her hearing and sight, and stopped speaking. She remained in silence and darkness until a teacher named Anne Sullivan arrived to help her reenter the world through sign language. After months of work, Helen learned to sign and speak, uttering her first word -- water -- at a little black water pump that still sits near her birthplace and home, Ivy Green. Helen Keller went on to say much more… she was known as the "First Lady of Courage" because of her advocacy and work for the deaf and blind, as well as the disabled, women and minorities. It's a legacy celebrated each year around her birthday in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where she was born.

The week-long Helen Keller Festival features music, food, arts and crafts, and tours of the Keller home, nestled in the midst of huge old trees, in this little town of tree-lined streets and historic homes. Many of her family remain in Tuscumbia, including great-grand niece and namesake Keller Johnson Thompson, who says her aunt was a lot of fun. "She wasn't a person who was stuck in a dark and silent world. She lived life to the fullest."

Ms. Thompson, who carries on Helen Keller's work as an advocate for the blind, says her aunt led an extraordinary life. She remembers hearing stories about how active she was in the cause of helping others. "She was so concerned about other people around the world that of course had disabilities," Ms. Thompson recalls. "She was concerned with civil rights. She was concerned with a woman's right to vote here in the United States. So my fondest recollections, memories of her, are ones that have been told to me of her doing things for other people."

But how does a festival honor this woman who wrote books and poetry and met with presidents and world leaders and changed the way people thought about the disabled and disadvantaged? Keller Thompson says when people attend the festival, and see where her aunt grew up and lived, it makes Helen Keller a real person, someone who would have loved the celebration. "If she were here," Ms. Thompson says, "I think she would be right down there in the middle of things having a great time and I think she would be very supportive of the festival and what we're doing there."

Helen Keller loved music, which she sensed through its vibrations, so there's a lot of music at the festival. Arville Nix has been singing with the Alabama-based King's Messengers for 36 years. He says their gospel songs are a fitting tribute to Helen Keller and her message. "She helped all people," he says. "I don't think she was prejudiced toward anybody. She wanted to help people fulfill their life and their dreams, and she did that."

Children are also included in the celebration. At the festival, young students -- known as Keller Kids -- have a chance to learn how to sign a song, and perform it. Heather Foster, 12, is a Keller Kid, "'Cause I like sign language and my mother thought it would be cool if I could learn it." She says she wanted to learn so she could communicate with a friend. "My cousin has a friend who is deaf and when I go over there I like to talk to her but I couldn't because I only knew the letters."

Each year, children with a variety of disabilities compete in a juried art show, creating pieces that are displayed at the Tennessee Valley Art Center. According to the Center's Assistant Director Jim Berryman, "these children here in this art show are … showing the importance of spirit, drive, determination and will." He says the children's art reflects Helen Keller's belief that the disabled have a voice to be shared.

A highlight of the festival is the performance of William Gibson's play, The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller's life. It's presented outdoors, in the backyard of the Keller family home. Shenique-Monique Milton, a college theater student, plays the role of house servant Viney, and says the presentations can be very emotional at times. "The first performance was for a group of blind bikers," she recalls, "and they are so attentive and they're listening to every word. And they come up, and once people tell you that how much they enjoy it, and what effect Helen Keller has had on their lives, it becomes much more than just a summer job."

Each year, hundreds of people come to this small Alabama town to see the play and touch the now famous pump where Helen Keller broke through the barriers of deafness and blindness… and -- Keller Thompson hopes -- leave Tuscumbia with Helen Keller's spirit, and a new resolve to help those who can't help themselves.

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