SAN DIEGO — Graduating from high school in June was an important event for Jaime Gonzales. But the 18-year-old freshman at Grossmont College is especially proud of another graduation--from the San Diego Service Center for the Blind.
This was a sweet achievement indeed for the young man who plans on becoming an electronics engineer.
"I can't begin to tell you how important it is," Gonzales said, as he explained how the 24-week course in basic living skills has enabled him to cope much more effectively in a world he sees only dimly because of an optic nerve disorder.
"It's made life in general a lot easier and safer, and I'm not so clumsy any more when I do things," he said. "I can make my own meals in the kitchen at home using notched measuring cups, and I use the new methods I learned so I don't get wrong proportions or spill and drop things."
Also, since graduation, there are no more accidental burns at the stove, knife cuts on his hands, or utensils stored improperly. "I'm using the system I learned at the center so I can do things safely and know exactly where everything is."
Making tortillas from scratch is one of many culinary triumphs for Gonzales as he puts his new skills to use.
Even more important to him is the center's orientation and mobility class, since every day he must make the round trip, via four buses, to get from his home in El Cajon to Grossmont College.
"The instructors at the center taught me how to 'hear' my way around," he said. "Now I listen for traffic flow and then judge when to cross a street safely. I use the same techniques to help me get around at school."
Warren Simon, center director, said teachers in its outreach program routinely go to local college campuses to help blind and partially sighted students become familiar with walking to their classrooms, cafeterias and dorms.
"These same students often use our low-vision facilities at the center to do their studying and homework," Simon said. The largest group of users is 70 students who attend San Diego State University.
They are among 2,150 people served each year throughout San Diego County at the center's East San Diego headquarters on El Cajon Boulevard and its satellite facility in Carlsbad. Started in 1973, the center is licensed by the state Department of Rehabilitation to provide a wide range of free services that help individuals 18 and older achieve independence.
Older Students Aided
Gonzales and other young people make up a small part of the individuals served. About 80% of the center's students are 65 and older, most of them victims of macular degeneration, the most common cause of loss of sight among the elderly, said the American Foundation for the Blind. In this disease, which the foundation said affects a quarter of those over 65, the macula near the center of the eye's retina deteriorates and makes straight lines turn wavy or crooked and large objects appear tiny. One eye is always affected before the other and colors become altered. The condition often accompanies the development of a cataract.
"It comes on a person very quickly, and the biggest problem we deal with at the beginning is getting these people past their denial of the situation and desire to just stay at home and hide," Simon said.
One of the center's most potent weapons in this regard is Ada Knudson, a 63-year-old dynamo of positive thinking who serves as a volunteer Braille instructor.
"The biggest problem about going blind is our fear of not knowing how to deal with it and the terrible feeling of helplessness," Knudson said. Two years ago, her doctor told her she had macular degeneration and would soon be blind.
"I struggled very hard to not fall to pieces," she said. "I figured the best way to handle this was to simply feel grateful for having been blessed with sight for 61 of my years."
Like a lot of the center's graduates, Knudson returned to help out as a volunteer and now plays an important role not only in teaching Braille but also in dissolving the heavy depression common with new students.
"I meet new people right at the front door," she said. "And they are usually scared to death. Most come only because a relative or spouse has pleaded with them to give it a try."
"But that apprehension dissolves real fast because they soon realize we're all in this together and, when they start making progress, the mood swings to elation and then they feel there's nothing they can't do."
Another favorite role model is Lewis Drake, 59, who lost the sight of his right eye in a car accident as a sophomore in high school and whose left eye has always been poor.
He participated in the center's courses four years ago and has stayed on to help out anywhere he can. His forte is a light, easy-going style that helps cut the tension for new students struggling with their cooking lessons in the newly expanded kitchen classroom.
Like other tasks, having to relearn basic food preparation skills is frustrating for the beginner.