by Luc Gandarias
From the Editor: Luc Gandarias made a wonderful presentation at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, and he writes with a flavor that is seldom seen from someone who will be turning sixteen as you read this. Gary and Denise Mackenstadt were the people who were primarily responsible for recruiting him into the Federation. Luc’s writing displays a wonderful sense of humor and brings quite a lot of wisdom to his subject. I hope that this is but the first of many articles he will write for us.
He has taken his advanced placement biology test using Braille and audio, and he loves math and science. He wants to go to a good university and become an astrophysicist. Luc participates in cross country and in track. He uses a human guide, but does not compete in the disabled category. He loves to bike, and in addition to all the physical outdoor things he does, he loves computer nerdy stuff. He will soon attend the NFB EQ, a week-long engineering program, and he has been accepted to participate in the Microsoft Ninja Camp program later this Summer. Here is what he has to say about his initial reaction to attending the Colorado Center for the Blind and his subsequent reflections on the experience:
Good afternoon fellow Federationists. I am glad to return to the Washington affiliate convention after a year break due to my aunt’s wedding, which was inconveniently scheduled over convention weekend. At any rate, I am here to speak to you today about my summer at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). Before I can talk about the main points, it is important that I give some background. I first learned of CCB while I was at national convention three years ago. My mother and I were returning to our hotel room after a lengthy general session to change and prepare for the banquet when she noticed the CCB table. Immediately she strode over to it with me in tow and began cheerfully firing questions at the CCB rep behind it. I listened in curiously until I heard it mentioned that it was an eight-week program all the way in Colorado, from which point I tuned out the conversation. Clearly having her voracious appetite for answers satiated, mother turned to me and said “Excellent! Guess where you’re going after freshman year.” I, for one, was vehemently opposed to this idea. I was twelve and entering seventh grade at the time. I was certainly opposed to anything that impinged upon my summer pastimes of alternately hanging out with my friends and playing Minecraft. I clearly wasn’t seeing the wisdom in going to such a program, though it would provide the skills training I needed to realize my goals in the professional workspace.
As time wore on, I grew considerably warmer about the idea of going to CCB. I talked with many of my closest Federation family members, who all thought that the Colorado Center was a perfect fit for me. They said the experience would give me a taste of what college living might be like. Another factor that contributed to my newfound desire to attend the program was the additional activities they offered, such as outdoor rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and a 5K run. These activities were all under sleepshades, which I was understandably underwhelmed about. However, what I didn’t realize is that once you’re under sleepshades for eight hours a day anyway, it isn’t a problem to put them on for recreational activities as well.
Eventually the time came for me to attend the program, so my mother and I made the journey down to Littleton to get situated in the apartments. It was then that I met my counselor, a college student in Georgia, and also the president of NABS in that state, named Justin Heard. This is also when I met a fellow student named Brett Camen. I would soon grow quite close to both of these people. After the three-day period of rest while everyone got to know one another, the program came on hard and fast. The home management segment of the program held no real difficulties for me since I have always been expected to cook and help out with the chores at home like any other kid. However, even in the first week, I saw enormous growth in other students at the program as their counselors instructed them on how to complete a basic cooking or cleaning task and then turned them loose to try it themselves. By the end of the program, several students who came to CCB scared to open an oven were making entire meals unsupervised, and that is the power of Structured Discovery.
Though the physical tasks of cooking and cleaning weren’t difficult for me, the aspect of living with three other people was. It was exceedingly hard to keep my possessions separate from those of others. There were even several instances when I went on a mad rampage around the apartment looking for one of my dress shirts that had inexplicably dematerialized from the hanger. To make matters even more convoluted, my counselor and I both wore the same size clothing and had pairs of khakis that were identical. This experience greatly improved my organizational skills, which desperately needed help anyway.
Probably the class that challenged me the most and incited the most growth in my skills was travel. I was a competent cane user before coming to the program, and I had experience using sleepshades, but my skills under them were mediocre at best. This changed quickly, however. CCB mandated that all students were to have their sleepshades on from announcements at the beginning of the day until the bell at the end. This was initially quite difficult for me, and I was caught several times peeking, but I adapted reasonably quickly. After about the second week I didn’t mind not being able to use my sight, but I did mind very much the sticky, itchy, uncomfortable nature of the sleepshades. The temperature was in the high 90s in Littleton after all. However, I slowly grew accustomed to this too.
The first few days of travel class were slow going and mainly consisted of basic cane techniques, but we quickly progressed to lessons navigating different intersections in the neighborhood surrounding the center. When I asked when we would work on traveling to specific locations, I was informed that they would start doing such lessons the following week. This was too long for me to wait, so I planned a trip with one of my friends to go to the Microsoft store in Park Meadows on Thursday of the second week of the program. This store was fifty miles from the apartments, all the way on the other side of Denver, and it involved three train transfers and two busses to get to. Michael and I actually had no real reason to go to this store, because we neither needed nor had the money to purchase anything. The trip was meant to challenge our problem-solving skills and to prove our abilities to the counselors so we could do other such expeditions in the future. This played out well for me since the travel instructors were quite willing to let me go on independent routes or to go with another student. They even permitted me to go to Wells Fargo to resolve an issue with my bank account during center hours—alone of course.
Perhaps the most beloved part of each week at CCB was the Sunday shopping spree and cleaning extravaganza. Students would loudly complain to one another about how long shopping took and how much they didn’t want to clean. I never found cleaning particularly grueling; in fact, it usually took me about a half hour to clean the apartment, which went rather quickly. However, I am in full agreement with the other students regarding the laborious task of shopping for the week. It was mind-numbing and took hours. The shopper’s assistants were slow and rarely acquired the correct items. A list of twenty-five items took nearly two hours to locate, acquire, and check out. At home, I know the layout of all the local stores and can easily find almost any item. A shopping trip like the one described above would take my family and me about twenty minutes total. In spite of this, I feel that it was beneficial to do this on a regular basis. I may have a more efficient method for shopping in my area, but the experience at the center allowed me to see what shopping will be like when I am in college or living on my own. Additionally, creating a weekly budget to provide meals for various eating styles in my apartment was a challenge and a necessary skill to develop. I learned a lot about budget and compromise. Also, I learned how expensive my favorite summer meal of Greek pasta salad is to make when not shopping at Trader Joes.
Truly the most highly anticipated and fun part of the program was the NFB national convention. All eighty-nine students from all three programs were flown to Florida to experience the magic of a national convention. Our trip was excellent. Like normal, we were required to wear our sleepshades from eight in the morning until five in the evening unless we were sitting in a meeting. This amounted to very little time actually wearing the shades since meetings comprised most of the day, but navigating around the hotel under shades was torture. The place was cavernous and echoing in one area, which was difficult to navigate, but not too bad. The lower hall was a different story altogether. It was carpeted and lined with tables that made shorelining impossible. The only way to navigate this hallway was to make an educated guess where the walls were and walk as straight as possible toward the escorts at the end of the hall. This gave me all kinds of mobility practice in a vast and unknown area. It was good experience for my fellow CCB students and me.
General sessions were long but never boring. I have had the good fortune to attend convention three times before this summer, so I knew what to expect. This was not the case for many of my peers, and they were overcome by the sheer number of blind people in one place. Something I noticed among all students during the convention was the desire for involvement in this great organization. Even those most depressed by their condition before coming to the convention were fired up by the NFB philosophy by the end. Interacting with people who share ideas, adventures, and prospects for the future was a new experience for many of us.
All that I learned at CCB can’t be contained in this speech, but one thing I would like to mention before I close is that I will never be a dishwasher. Though my plan has been all along to go to college and study to become a physicist, I am doubly convinced that this will be my path now. At the end of the program, students were assigned to an internship at various local establishments, and my job was a dishwasher at a local restaurant. On the first day, the supervisor told my friend and I that he hoped this internship made sure that we never worked in the restaurant industry, and that set the tone for the rest of the week. On the upside, we were provided free food and anything we wanted to drink the entire time we worked there. I also enjoyed the commute in the morning. It was rather long since we worked in Golden. This commute was made without supervision after the first two days, when we were deemed to have sufficient travel skills to find our own way.
Eight weeks at CCB seemed daunting at the beginning of the summer, and I thought I would lose all my vacation. In the end, I am so happy I went to CCB and came to know the amazing friends that I met. I have people I can call all across the country now. I have lifelong friends, and I got a glimpse of what skills I need beyond my regular school day. Thankfully, my NFB family and early TVI, Denise Mackenstadt, set me on a good path. I only hope that attendance at CCB will be an option for more Washington state students. This is not just a live-in program but a real-life program.