Call to Cause: The Perkins Possibilities Gala
by jessica laniewski
Campbell Grousbeck came up with the idea for the Perkins School’s large tactile map.
Few people can say they have brought an international star to tears. But Corinne Grousbeck, cochair of the 2012 Perkins Possibilities Gala, had that experience when singer Natalie Merchant performed at the annual event in 2009. "When I was speaking about my experience as a young mom, up with Campbell all night, I told the audience I used to listen to the song 'Wonder' over and over," remembers Corinne. As part of her speech, she said, "The lyrics 'This child will be gifted with love, patience, and with faith' are what gave me hope for his future. I looked down at Natalie at that moment, and she was crying."
The Grousbecks' road to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown started in San Francisco and took them to the suburbs of Boston in 1995 for their then two-year-old son, Campbell. He was born with Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a rare genetic disorder that affects the retina and caused him to be totally blind at birth. "We were living in California and didn't have access to services for our son," says Corinne, who also has a daughter, Kelsey, a senior at Stanford University, with her husband, Wyc, the managing partner and CEO of the Boston Celtics. "They simply didn't exist. It became clear to us that education was going to be the difference between Campbell living a comfortable life and Campbell leading an independent and fulfilling life." After fastidiously researching schools, the family came across Perkins, the first and most famous school for the blind in the US. Helen Keller attended Perkins, as did her teacher Anne Sullivan. "It is the preeminent school for educating children who are blind and deaf-blind," adds Corinne. "When we visited the school we saw a gorgeous campus full of 'Campbells.' We moved within the month."
Their relationship with Perkins has strengthened considerably over the years, due in part to how much their son has grown there. "They took over the teaching, so we could focus on nurturing and parenting," says Corinne. "That was a huge gift to us." Since Campbell was born the Grousbecks have had a "divide and conquer" attitude toward the cause of blindness: Corinne focuses on providing the best possible educational opportunities as the chair of the Perkins Trust Board, while Wyc puts his energy into finding a cure as chairman of the board of Massachusetts Eye and Ear, the largest ophthalmology research center in the world.
While the Grousbecks work closely with Perkins throughout the year, the annual gala is a chance for the community to see the school's daily lessons in action. After attending the school's 175th anniversary bash in 2005, Corinne was inspired to launch the Perkins Possibilities Gala the following year, in order to bring the fundraising crowd to the school's nearly 40-acre campus. The formal seated dinner raised $1.5 million in 2011, and the Grousbecks hope to push that figure over the $2 million mark on May 3. The event has been a sold-out affair for the past few years, with nearly 600 people descending onto Perkins' campus for the evening. "Because Corinne created this event and decided to have it on the campus, featuring the kids, a growing number of great Bostonians have been able to connect deeply with Perkins and join the mission," says Wyc, who grew up in Weston and has cochaired the gala twice. "So many people didn't know what Perkins does or how important it is worldwide, and when they found out they came on board enthusiastically." Perkins' influence is indeed felt across the globe, as teachers from all over the world come to the school to study in the Educational Leadership Program. They take college courses, participate in workshops run by Perkins' staff, and lead classes at Perkins. The teachers then return to their homes with knowledge and skills to help the deaf and blind.
Students get involved in the gala by performing songs and leading the narrative about Perkins. The event also attracts world-class musicians. Livingston Taylor's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" moved the audience to tears, Peter Wolf happily incorporated the students into his performance in 2011, and Natalie Merchant even toured the campus and donated money for computers after she performed at the gala. (Corinne calls her the "real deal.") Corinne won't reveal this year's performer, as it is a surprise for the students, but she insists that the event is more about giving the students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity than giving the audience a fabulous concert. "It's about empowering our students," says Corinne, who is chairing this year's event alongside Friends executive producer Kevin Bright and hospitality entrepreneur Joe O'Donnell. "These are kids who are generally marginalized from society, and they now have a moment in their lives where they are valued, honored, listened to, and get to perform with a famous musician." The event makes the students feel like stars.
The Grousbecks have shown their appreciation to Perkins in other ways as well. The Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology, which opened this past fall, was funded in part by a $10 million gift from the Grousbeck Family Foundation. The new building includes a student center for recreation, a tech center, an Internet radio station, and a digital recording studio. The interactive equipment is largely controlled by iPads. Campbell, who plays guitar and performed on stage with Bob Weir at the 2010 gala, was integral in the design of the building and the choice of materials. He even came up with the concept for the large tactile map in the building's entry, which is sculpted from wood (via a computerized robotic arm) and was inspired by the original globe created for Perkins students in 1837.
The Grousbecks have big dreams for both Campbell and Perkins. While their son has gained and retained his independence, the school has done the same while reaching a global audience. Understanding that fundraising is an ongoing commitment, Perkins launched its first large-scale comprehensive campaign, Touch Our World, on July 1, 2007, to raise $130 million to aid the endowment for current use and capital projects. A little more than $110 million of that amount has already been raised, with one year remaining in the campaign. Corinne and Wyc are doing their part to help meet the goal with this year's gala. Money raised will ensure that future generations of bright and talented "Campbells" will have the same opportunities their son had. The Perkins Possibilities Gala will be held on May 3 at 6 PM. For tickets, call 617-972-7583 or visit perkins.org/gala.
photography by brian smith; photography courtesy of the perkins school for the blind (sullivan); michael blanchard (corinne and wyc); dave gordon (family)