We care. We share. We grow. We make a difference! Joe Ruffalo, President of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey talks teamwork, perseverance, and hope

As we continue to grow and expand, so does our GreenDrop family. Over the past few months, we introduced our readers to key players from the team including, Colleen Blair, Sam Kresz, and newest member, Michael Gray.

From spreading awareness throughout our communities and expanding locations, to strengthening relationships with partner charities such as the Sojoseph-ruffalociety of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia, our team members are the true backbone of GreenDrop. And that value set is upheld by our partner charities, who are the reason for doing what we do.

To give donors – who select the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) – a sense of how their donations make an impact, we sat down with Joe Ruffalo, President of the NFB of New Jersey. He shared with us his journey to becoming president of the New Jersey affiliate, and what the team at the NFB means to him.

GreenDrop: Tell us about yourself and your experience with the National Federation of the Blind.

Joe: After coming home from Vietnam and working in retail for several years during the 1970s, I began to experience some vision loss. However, I was able to continue as a retail manager for about seven years, despite being visually impaired. In need of direction – already married for five years and with two kids – I began searching for ways to continue my life as a husband, father, and provider. But, I encountered many roadblocks along the way. A lot of people said, “you can’t do this” and “you can’t do that”—needless to say, I wasn’t a happy camper.

Thankfully, I met some good people along the way who believed in me even before I believed in myself. And, they happened to be members of the National Federation of the Blind. After being invited to an NFB meeting, I attended (not planning to join); it turned out the NFB was doing everything I wanted to do. Its members were doing things with pride and dignity, and I knew I needed to have a part of that in my heart. I decided to get involved with the NFB through various leadership roles. In 1993 I became President [of the New Jersey affiliate], and still hold that position today (22 years later). In 2001, I was elected to the national board of directors of the NFB and currently remain on the board.

The confidence I gained through my leadership with the NFB helped me get involved with my community – as a Cub Master, Boy Scout leader, member of the Lions Club, and the Knights of Columbus.

I was also employed with the Senior Community Independent Living Services (SCILS), and with the Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Determination (LEAD) program. SCILS identifies seniors over the age of 55 experiencing vision loss and provides them with skills, techniques, and a positive attitude to help them gain the confidence to remain at home and direct their own choices.

LEAD is a program for high school students with vision loss to gain the positive attitude, skills, and techniques from blind mentors to demonstrate that we can live the life we want; blindness is not what holds us back.

GreenDrop: How did you find out about the National Federation of the Blind?

Joe: I found out about the NFB through my friend’s sister, who was an active member of the organization. She invited me to a meeting, which I originally didn’t want to attend. But, she called me six times! Finally after the sixth call, I accepted. Talk about persistence.

At that time I had some usable vision. I always thought my vision was better than no vision, but it wasn’t. People at the NFB were doing things I couldn’t.

Those same people pushed me and told me to pick myself up. If you make a mistake, so what, you learn from it. So when I say the organization is important to me, it is. The National Federation of the Blind is nothing more and nothing less than its members reaching out to help others. None of us get paid for what we do, but we still get it done as volunteers.

GreenDrop: What would you say makes the NFB so unique?

Joe: Its members. We share information with each other. We embrace each other. We cry with each other. We laugh with each other. And when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. The main difference between the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations is that we care, and I mean truly care about our members. I love working with students because they are our future. They have it way better than generations before them, therefore we hope to continue making things better for future generations.

GreenDrop: What are your main responsibilities as president of the NFB of New Jersey?

Joe: Currently I’m retired, but the NFB keeps me extremely busy. And, I love every minute of it.

My main responsibilities are to grow and build the Federation and to provide love, hope, and determination to each person that I come in contact with. When a person who is experiencing blindness knows that someone cares and believes in them, this usually sparks an interest to gain additional knowledge to live the life they want.

I guess, at times, I serve as a cheerleader by providing the history and philosophy of the Federation and to represent that it is respectable to be blind.

One of my primary roles is correspondence. I get up at 5 or 6 a.m. every day, check my emails, and review my weekly calendar. Then I check my messages and return phone calls. Most calls I receive are from newly blind individuals seeking assistance. Sometimes phone calls take hours, so that keeps me busy. I also help edit articles that appear in our NFB of New Jersey publication, The Sounding Board. Essentially I make sure everything at the New Jersey affiliate runs smoothly.

GreenDrop: What would you like our readers and donors to know about the NFB?

Joe: The National Federation of the Blind was established and organized in 1940, making it the largest and oldest organization of the blind in the country. Money and donations generated from GreenDrop contribute directly to our youth, senior, and veteran programs, opening many doors for the blind.
My saying goes, “We care. We share. We grow. We make a difference!” Funds generated through GreenDrop will make a difference in people’s lives.

GreenDrop: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Joe: We know blindness is not a characteristic that defines your future. Every day, we raise the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles between the blind and their dreams. You can have the life you want. Blindness is not what holds us back. Together with love, hope, and determination, we can turn dreams into reality. That’s what I want people to know.

Whatever people contribute to GreenDrop, we appreciate. That bag of clothes, a box of dishes, or whatever it might be, goes a long way in providing hope and dignity to those who receive a gift from the Federation through our programs. In other words, clean out that closet!

On behalf of GreenDrop, thank you so much, Joe! It was a pleasure speaking with you! Be sure to check back to the blog for updates on the National Federation of the Blind and influential leaders like Mr. Ruffalo.