by Angel Ayala
From the Editor: We know that the road to success often begins with a good education, and we know how often this is where a string of failures leading to passivity, low expectations, and a poor self-concept can begin. Not only do we pledge to change that system but to work with those currently in it so that they get what they need to think of themselves as positive and productive human beings.
Angel Ayala is now a freshman in college, but at the time of his presentation he was a newly graduated high school senior. Here is what he has to say about his school experience and the part the National Federation of the Blind has played in helping him to think of himself as someone who can make a difference:
Good morning. My name is Angel Ayala, and I am honored to speak to you about the NFB STEM2U apprenticeship program. But first, I think I should tell you who I am. I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and at the time I was a healthy little boy. Blindness was the last thing on my mother and father’s minds. That all changed when I started to get sick. I was about eight months old, and the doctors were a bit confused as to what was happening to me. The only thing that was clear was that I was losing my vision. Not only were my parents extremely young, but now their firstborn was rapidly losing his vision. I took a battery of tests, and the doctors confirmed that I had a rare form of ligneous conjunctivitis. Soon after my diagnosis my parents moved us to Philadelphia. I have lived in Philadelphia ever since.
After years of checkups, tests, and different doctors, it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t getting my vision back. At first I was depressed. I didn’t think I would be able to be on the same level as my brothers and sisters. I saw them playing outside or inside on the GameCube, and I thought I was less a person, that my lack of sight was what defined me. But I eventually realized that I was wrong.
My mom enrolled me in the Overbrook School for the Blind’s early childhood program, where I started to learn Braille. That was the point at which I realized that I love to learn new things. I loved to challenge the things that I’ve read, and I love to ask questions about the things that I didn’t know. I learned about Louis Braille and Helen Keller, and this gave me the hope that I needed to challenge what I believed was a wall that I could never get past.
Fast-forward five years. I was a troublesome kid when I came to school. I would get my work done, and I was left with nothing to do for the last thirty-five minutes of the class. So I would start to joke around and mess with the other students in my class. I knew it wasn’t helpful to the staff or the students for that matter, but I was bored, and I had nothing else better to do. It was frustrating because I knew what the issue was. I was not challenged. The work was way too easy, but who was I to say that? With no one listening to what I had to say, I was labeled a bad apple, and that was pretty much it.
Two years and many middle school parent-teacher conferences later, I finally felt like someone was taking notice of what the real issue was. My IEP was restructured, and I was placed in a classroom that was challenging. For the first time in years it was great. I was challenged; I got the help I needed; I got the materials I needed to succeed.
But public school came with its own set of battles. The physical education instructor told me that I couldn’t participate in class because she didn’t want me to get hurt. [Moans from the audience] So let me paint this picture for you. There were thirty-five sighted students playing and exercising around me, and if I so much as made a move to do something productive, I got in trouble. Honestly my favorite time was when the teacher got sick. A substitute would come in who didn’t know about the regular rules when it came to me, so I was able to play basketball with my classmates; I was taught to jump rope. I was simply tired of people telling me what I couldn’t do, so I made the extra effort to prove that I could.
My mom gave me the freedom to learn whatever I wanted to do. She let me do things myself. But the independence I enjoyed at home didn’t carry over to my school environment, and that was frustrating. When I started high school, I realized that I was not prepared for the transition like I should’ve been. My O&M skills were severely lacking, and I still had some issues when it came to my visual impairment. Despite feeling unprepared, I took advantage of all the opportunities high school had to offer. I joined the swim team; I began to wrestle; I played goalball, and I did track and field. I also got involved in my community—many community service projects such as the campout for hunger, which is a Thanksgiving canned food drive. It was through community involvement that I ran across the NFB STEM2U apprenticeship program. NFB STEM2U was a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program that focused on the development and mentoring of both elementary and high school students. At the program elementary school students were called juniors, and the high school students—we were called the apprentices. Each program was run in collaboration with a science museum. This past school year the NFB STEM2U program was held in Baltimore, Maryland; Columbus, Ohio; and Boston, Massachusetts. Each program had eight to ten apprentices and twenty juniors. At the program all the students learned a lot of STEM: for example, we learned how to build racecars out of recyclable items and how to assemble circuits to power fans. In addition to learning STEM, the apprentices had another job to do. Our job was to help the younger students, if needed, to make sure they were safe and to help bring them information and knowledge throughout the program.
At the beginning of the school year in September, the apprentices from all the different regions met at the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, for the NFB STEM2U Leadership Academy. The objective of this leadership academy was to teach how to be good mentors, role models, and leaders of the younger students. Among other things, we learned how to interact with the juniors and learned the nonvisual techniques for keeping track of kids. We also took time to lay down goals that we wanted to keep in mind during our regional program. We exchanged contact information at the leadership academy because we learned that we would have to have weekly meetings until the program weekend was here so that we could prepare for the activities and get the information that we needed to make a successful program.
We were responsible for completing different tasks in order to prepare ourselves for the regional programs with the juniors. For example, we figured out which students would be with which mentor, and we determined the junior-to-apprentice ratio that would be most helpful. We also planned the opening activities for all the juniors. We spent a lot of time preparing ourselves for the regional program, but we still felt a little uneasy going into it. This was a new role for all of us, and we weren’t sure how it would go.
It was finally time for the Baltimore program, which I had the pleasure to be a part of. I took an Amtrak train for the first time, and others took a plane or two to get to the NFB Jernigan Institute. We got to meet the juniors we were responsible for as well as their parents. We had to show the parents and their children how to get to the different activities. This meant posting mentors in the hallways as marshals to help participants to find their way to meals, lessons, and workshops. That weekend took a lot of teamwork and communication, not only among the mentors, but also between the juniors and the parents. During the Baltimore NFB STEM2U regional program we taught the juniors that “I can’t” is not an option. We taught them to be advocates for themselves. We had to show the juniors that the possibilities are endless and that, if you create a goal and develop ways to reach that goal in order to reach that bigger picture, you will succeed.
The NFB STEM2U program improved my self-confidence in several different areas. It made me realize that with some help I can make a difference in these young juniors’ lives. I didn’t really know how big of an impact I made on the juniors’ lives until a parent of one of the juniors for whom I was responsible reached out to my homeroom teacher and let her know that after the NFB STEM2U, she saw a boost in her son’s willingness to try new things. The mom said that the mentors took a great amount of time and patience with the juniors, and that allowed them to focus on the activities that were provided for the parents that weekend. When I learned what this mom had said about our work, it made me smile. I didn’t know if the lessons we taught that weekend would actually stick over time. This is when I figured out that I could really make a difference.
Another way the NFB STEM2U affected me was my traveling skills. First of all, I had never taken Amtrak. I had taken a plane several times by myself, but I had never taken Amtrak. It was a new experience that encouraged me to travel more and to learn everything I could when it came to O&M. I plan on taking the confidence I have gained from the NFB STEM2U mentorship program with me to community college. I recently was accepted into the honors program, and I want to get my associates degree in music production. But I am extremely scared. I’m starting to second-guess my decision. Music has always been a passion of mine that I have had since I was a young boy, but I don’t want to get a degree that I will do absolutely nothing with. Too many people achieve degrees that they do not end up using. What does this mean? Well, they have a degree, and they also have a huge debt but no way to pay it off. I don’t want to be stuck in that position, but I also don’t know what I can do that would make me happy and also pay the bills. I guess only time will tell.
You all probably know this already, but I want to reinforce what a big impact programs like NFB STEM2U have on everyone who is involved. Children are our future, and in order to make sure that they have the skills they need to succeed, we must start the learning process early in their lives. A Hebrew proverb states, “A child is not a vessel to be filled but a lamp to be lit.” NFB STEM2U has lit many lamps. I hope that we can continue to have programs like NFB STEM2U so that we can reach these children at a younger age. Programs like the NFB STEM2U allow young adults to mentor young juniors, expanding their willingness to learn new things, and I would love to remain involved in programs that help youth. I know that I am not the only apprentice who feels this way. By the time the NFB STEM2U Baltimore program was over, many of the mentors asked if we could do it again. I enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed helping the young students, and I know that the other mentors did as well. I’d like to thank the NFB for hosting a program like the NFB STEM2U in order to prepare the youth for the future. I’d also like to thank Natalie Shaheen, Mika Baugh, and Ashley Ritter for being a part of our conference calls every week leading up to the program. Your insight into how to deal with our juniors was very much needed. Thank you to everyone who gave their time instructing both the apprentices and juniors. I believe it took all of us working together in order to make this program work. Thank you to my fellow mentors. There was no way I could’ve done this alone. It took a lot of preparation and teamwork, but because we all pulled our own weight, we were able to give the juniors the tools they will use for the rest of their lives. Thank you to Mr. Mark Riccobono for giving me this opportunity to speak to you about a program that has affected so many people’s lives. Words aren’t enough to show the gratitude that I feel, so I think I will just stick with thank you. If you are thinking about participating in a program involving youth, my advice is to just do it. It is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Thank you.
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