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Blind Teens Gain Work Experience During Centre's Summer Program

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Monitor, November, 2003:

Twice a week Raven Johnson tells stories to toddlers and holds babies to calm them at the Highline YMCA. At first glance the sixteen-year-old appears like the rest of the staff, playing with the kids. Only the white cane lying within reach gives her away.

Johnson is one of about twenty youth attending the summer program at the Colorado Centre for the Blind, which is located in the former Littleton YMCA. During the eight-week program youth in middle school, high school, or college learn or improve their braille, computer, travel, and work skills. All of the twelve high-schoolers have jobs for four weeks.

Johnson wants to be a teacher someday, so she worked with Buna Dahal, employment specialist at the Colorado Centre for the Blind, to find a job working with kids.

"I love the kids," Johnson said. "I like to write stories, and it's a pretty good guarantee that I'll get several kids around me when I start telling a story."

From Richmond, Virginia, Johnson registered for the summer program after a friend recommended she do it. There have been tough times, she said, but she's had a lot of fun, too. Youth work hard on skills but also have fun playing sports, rock climbing, and going to events, including a Rockies game.

The summer program has given Johnson more confidence to go after her dreams.

"It's given me more confidence," she said. "I used to be really leery about being a teacher even though it was something I really wanted to do. Now I know I can do it."

Co-worker Michelle Tappenier said she's enjoyed working with Johnson and is amazed at the way she can calm even the crankiest babies. Johnson's blindness has not been an obstacle in her work. In fact, a week ago Johnson helped lead some of the kids outside to the playground with other staff for a fire drill.

"The obstacles she's going to have will come more from the adults than the kids," Tappenier said. "They don't know she can't see."

Dahal said she's enjoyed working with Tappenier because she expects a lot out of the Colorado Centre students who work at the YMCA.

Dahal said the blind teens learn a lot more from their supervisors if they expect them to be responsible, to be on time, and to work at the same level as sighted people. Teens in the program are expected to get to work on their own using public transportation and to come to work ready to work hard.

That is exactly why Sharina Kershaw came from Missouri to Littleton. "I'm going to be a senior this year, and then I'm off to college," said Kershaw.I depend a lot on my mom, so I decided I needed to learn to do things on my own--and one way to do it is to get away from my mom," she said.

Kershaw's sight began to deteriorate at the age of two. Over time the deterioration has progressed slowly but steadily. She has lost her peripheral vision, and someday she will be completely blind.

For Jose Trujillo, Kershaw's manager at her job at Jose's Restaurant, Kershaw's remaining sight was what made him feel comfortable in giving her the temporary job.

Trujillo hasn't worked with a blind person before and was nervous about how a blind person would stay safe in the kitchen with hot pots and sharp knives around.

"(Dahal) is one little persistent lady," Trujillo said. "I was a little skeptical at first, but she kept asking and told me a blind person could work here.

It helped that Sharina has some sight."

Dahal kept asking, though, and her persistence paid off.

"Jose's educating the public that blind people can work and be effective," Dahal said. "That's the exciting part."

Ashli Gross also came to Littleton to learn some independence and deal with her blindness. In Montana she lives near a highway where there aren't any sidewalks.

"If you go somewhere, you have to walk in the ditch, so I don't go many places unless it's an emergency situation," she said.

While she doesn't go many places on her own, she said she hasn't been treated as a blind person. She was never given a cane as a child or treated any differently.

Gross was born with a detached retina in her right eye but still has near-sighted vision in her left eye.

"At home it was like I was just someone with a different-coloured right eye," she said. "Coming here made me realize I really am blind, and living in the blind community has made me accept my blindness."

Gross is working at the Littleton Municipal Courthouse on the computer and filing tickets.

"It's been great," said court clerk Pat Spindler. "We've been really busy and short-handed "she's been a great help to us."

Gross's constant surfing of the internet at home has paid off. She knows her way around the computer well enough that Spindler said she would only have to explain something once and Gross would remember it. Gross, in turn, said she likes working under the high expectations.

"I really like the idea that they don't baby me at all," she said. "I've been to blind camps before, and all they did was baby me. I've done more at home than I did at camp."

The work experience the teens are getting this summer will pay off someday, Dahal said. Many blind adults have a hard time finding a job because they haven't worked before. By offering teens a chance to work, it helps them find jobs later, Dahal said.

Working with the teens this summer has been a good experience, Dahal said. Their energy and self-confidence have been refreshing.

"Teenagers want to go do things," Dahal said. "Adults have a lot of hesitation, but teenagers don't have that. They just want to get out there and do it, and when they leave here, they will have changed lives."

Reprinted originally from the August 7, 2003, Littleton, Colorado, Independent.

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