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Glimpse of The Future

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Oregonian, July 29, 2004.

In some ways, it's a typical case of first-job jitters. Heather Wilson is 17 and a little nervous, uncertain of what's expected and caught up in details such as catching the right bus and having clean clothes to wear to work. At Providence Portland Medical Center, where she works in the volunteer services department, she bounces between bubbly and shy.

Beyond that is the usual teen stuff. With the money she's earning, she plans to storm Clackamas Town Center to buy clothes, makeup and CDs. She enjoys "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" on television, spends a lot of time on the internet and is seldom detached from her MP3 player. Poetry, music, drama, psychology and hanging with her friends at Sandy High School--she likes all those things. Math and creepy people on TriMet, ugh.

Just another kid on the edge of adulthood, trying to find her way.

But hers is an adapted path. At her feet is a white cane, ready for use. The fingers of her left hand explore the portable computer that dangles from a strap around her neck, finding the specialized keys and lightly skimming the braille readouts. Her right arm, which ends at the elbow, nudges and balances the device, and types on the keys.

She's been blind since birth, when she arrived three months early weighing 1 pound, 9 ounces. Her retinas were undeveloped and her right arm incomplete.

She was a twin; her sister did not survive. "Heather was the tough one," says her mother, Andrea Wilson.

Heather's whole life has been about adaptation. She read braille at 3. She learned to put on socks by first placing them on her "little arm," as the family calls it, and then slipping her foot inside.

This job is another in a series of challenges. Figure it out, find out how, make do.

"It's a good first job--actually a really good job," Heather says. "So when I go to college I'll be more confident, I'll be more prepared for what's going to come."

For seven weeks this summer, Heather is a receptionist in the volunteer services department, taking calls from people who want to help out at the hospital and entering the information on her computer with impressive speed. She also works in the gift shop and does other jobs.

She's one of about 40 young people--between 16 and 21 and all visually impaired or blind--taking part in the Oregon Commission for the Blind's Summer Work Experience Program, or SWEP.

Four of the students, including Heather, are working at the hospital. Others are working this summer at radio stations, athletic clubs, child-care facilities, parks and other places, said Mike Ray, a vocational rehabilitation counsellor for the commission.

The intent is to give young people a first work experience about the same time their sighted peers start working, Ray said. Students spend the first week in the program learning job readiness skills such as how to dress and conduct themselves in a job interview.

For Heather and others, though, there is an additional twist. Fifteen students in the program are living this summer at Reed College. They've had to learn to ride the bus to work, do laundry, shop for groceries and prepare basic meals for themselves. They don't go home on weekends, but instead take part in a series of activities. They've endured the confidence-building challenge course at Oregon Episcopal School, enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks at Oaks Park and tried whitewater rafting.

The commission has run a summer program for nearly 25 years and finds it makes a difference in young people's lives, Ray said.

"It's been dynamic," Ray said. "What we're finding is that folks who participated in SWEP in high school have been much more successful in getting jobs as adults."

Heather, he said, is "just a sweetheart of a girl. She is great."

Her supervisor in volunteer services, Melissa Shaw, said working with Heather has been more difficult than she expected. "But I feel like it's more my limitations than hers, because I have to think about how to adapt my world to hers."

Shaw said she questions Heather periodically, to find which tasks Heather can do. She recently realized Heather could take over her scheduling.

Heather's mother said the program has been good for her daughter. Heather will be a senior at Sandy next fall and is eager to start college. The SWEP program identified some of the bumps in that road this summer, including a time when Heather boarded the wrong bus and got lost on her way to work.

"It's exactly what she needs," Wilson said. "She thought she could go away to college and everything would be OK. I knew it would make her or break her."

Heather acknowledges she might need some help when she goes to college. But she doesn't give ground easily. The hardest thing about the SWEP program, she says, has been having to do her own laundry.

"I never know which ones are dark and which ones are light," she said with a smile.

She's looking forward to her senior year. She plans to try out for the high school musical.

"I want kids to think I'm a normal person, because I am," she said.