NABM Honors Former Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly At 2016 BLAST Conference

June 22, 2016

The National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM) recently honored former Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly at its Windy City BLAST Conference in Chicago, IL, May 18-20, 2016. President Nicky Gacos presented Mrs. Kennelly with the organization’s first ever President’s Award in recognition of her efforts on behalf of blind entrepreneurs.

“No one has affected the lives of as many blind entrepreneurs as Barbara Kennelly,” said Gacos.  “Today, hundreds of blind people own and operate their own businesses thanks to her.”

The young Congresswoman from Connecticut said in 1982 she was looking for an important issue to get behind.  She was approached about potential legislation that would grant a priority to blind vendors to operate vending machines at interstate rest areas.  The result was the Kennelly Amendments to the Surface Transportation Act.

As a result of this important legislation, today there are vending machines located at 1098 interstate rest areas.  665 of these are operated by 363 blind entrepreneurs and generate over $28 Million in net income for those entrepreneurs.  The average blind entrepreneur operating at an interstate rest area earns over $77,000 per year, which is significantly higher than the average generated by other Randolph-Sheppard vending facilities.  443 are operated by third party vending companies who paid over $5 Million in commissions to SLA’s.

In her written thank you note that she sent to President Gacos and NFBEI Director Terry Smith, Mrs. Kennelly said, “I want to express my gratitude for the beautiful award and for the enthusiasm and friendliness of your members.  We all love to be appreciated, and this was very, very special to me.  I met so many wonderful people during our brief time together, and I’d like to again extend my congratulations to you on heading up such a special organization.”  

Rest area vendors who wanted to express their appreciation to the former Congresswoman and tell her their story swamped Mrs. Kennelly.  It was really the first time she saw first-hand the impact her legislation had on so many blind people. “We were thrilled that we finally had the opportunity to say thank you in person,” said Gacos.  “We were honored by her presence.”

More than 500 people gathered at the Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel for the 2016 Windy City BLAST. 

Highlights included:

  • A full day of training by the Disney Institute on “The Disney Approach to Business Excellence”;
  • An invigorating opening ceremony at the leadership breakfast that featured a musical tribute to Chicago including the Chicago Bears Drum Line, Harry Carey leading the group in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Old Blue Eyes himself singing “Chicago,” and two rousing songs from the Blues Brothers.
  • A keynote address by National Federation of the Blind President Mark Riccobono;
  • A keynote by former Navy Seal Leif Babin;
  • A one act play featuring Gene Griesman as President Abraham Lincoln;
  • A presentation by RSA Commissioner Janet Labreck and other RSA representatives;
  • NAMA’s Triple Play presentation that was so popular at NAMA’s One Show in 2015;
  • Great presentations from some of the foremost Randolph-Sheppard and vending / food service experts in the country;
  • A fun-filled banquet that featured the original music of JP Williams and the comedy of Tim Cavenagh; and,
  • The largest tradeshow ever at a blind vendor event that featured a record 80 booths with 122 companies represented.

The 2017 BLAST conference will take place in Nashville, TN, Sept. 12-15, 2017.