American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention Issue 2015     GENERAL SESSIONS

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#NCBYS: Making the Connections and Equipping the Next Generation

by Angel Ayala

Angel Ayala (right) works on a STEM2U project with Elijah Anderson of Virginia.Introduction by Mark Riccobono: At the NFB Jernigan Institute, we try to dream about the programs that are needed to engage and inspire the next generation. I think that's one of the most important reasons to build the Federation. We have with us one of those young people that we're investing in, someone who I think is going to help change the future. This might be the first time we've had a convention item that starts with a hashtag. #NCBYS is our hashtag for the National Center for Blind Youth in Science, which has been operating now for a decade at our Jernigan Institute, inspiring and engaging blind young people in science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of them who were in our first programs are in this room. They have pursued PhDs in engineering and other areas. This young man is at the beginning of his journey. Here to talk about making connections and equipping the next generation is one of our apprentices from our National Federation of the Blind STEM2U program. He's from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here is Angel Ayala.

My name is Angel Ayala, and I am honored to speak to you about the NFB STEM2U apprentice program. 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's and father's minds. All of that changed when I started to get sick. I was about eight months old, and the doctors were confused about exactly what was happening to me. The only thing that was clear was that I was losing my vision. My parents were extremely young, and now their firstborn was rapidly losing his sight. After a battery of tests, the doctors confirmed that I had a rare form of a genetic condition called ligneous conjunctivitis.

Soon after my diagnosis, my parents moved us to Philadelphia. I have lived in Philadelphia ever since. After years of checkups and tests and doctors, I finally realized that I wasn't going to get my vision back. At first I was depressed. I didn't think I would ever be on the same level as my brothers and sisters. I saw them playing outside or inside on the game cube, and I thought I was less of a person. I thought that my lack of sight was what defined me. But I eventually realized that I was wrong.

My mom enrolled me in the early childhood program at the Overbrook School for the Blind, where I started to learn Braille. That was the point when I realized that I loved to learn new things. I loved to challenge the things that I read, and I loved to ask questions about the things I didn't know. I learned about Louis Braille and Helen Keller, which gave me the hope to challenge what I had believed was a wall that I could never pass.

Fast forward four or 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. 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. 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.

Two years and many parent middle school conferences later, I finally felt that someone was taking notice of the real issue. My IEP was restructured, and I was placed in a challenging classroom for the first time in years. It was great! I was challenged, I got the help I needed, and 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. [Groans and boos] 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. My favorite time, honestly, was when the teacher got sick. [Laughter] A substitute would come in who didn't know the rules about me, and I was able to play basketball with my classmates. I was taught to jump rope. After that I was simply tired of people telling me what I couldn't do, so I made the extra effort to prove to them that I could.

My mom gave me the freedom to learn what I wanted. 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 I was not as prepared for the transition as I should have been. My orientation and mobility 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 many community service projects, such as the Thanksgiving canned food drive.

It was through community involvement that I came across the NFB STEM2U program, which focused on the development and mentoring of elementary and high school students. In the program, students in elementary school were called juniors, and the high school students were called 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. All of the students learned a lot of STEM. For example, we learned how to build race cars 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 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 for the NFB STEM2U Leadership Academy. The objective of the leadership academy was to teach us how to be good mentors, role models, and leaders of the younger students. Among other things, we learned to interact with the juniors. We learned the nonvisual techniques for keeping track of kids. We also took time to set goals that we wanted to keep in mind during our regional program. We exchanged contact information so we could have weekly meetings until the program began, so we could prepare for the different activities and gather the information we needed to have a successful program.

Each of us was responsible for completing certain tasks to prepare ourselves for the regional programs with the juniors. 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 opening night activities for all of 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 each of us, and we weren't sure how it would go.

It was finally time for the Baltimore program, which I had the pleasure of being 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 that 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 the participants find their way to meals, lessons, and workshops. That weekend took a lot of teamwork and communication, not only between the mentors and the juniors, but between the juniors and the parents.

During the Baltimore NFB STEM2U, we taught the juniors that "I can't!" isn't an option. [Applause] We taught them to be advocates for themselves. We had to show the juniors that the possibilities are endless, and if you set a goal and develop ways to reach that goal, in order to complete that bigger picture, you will succeed.

The NFB STEM2U improved my self-confidence in several areas. It made me realize that with some help I can make a difference in these young juniors' lives. I didn't know how big an impact I made until the parent of a junior whom I mentored reached out to my homeroom teacher. She let my teacher 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 with the juniors, allowing them to focus on the activities that were provided that weekend. When I learned what this mom had said about our work, it made me smile. I hadn't known that 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 impacted me was through my travel skills. 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 learn everything I could when it came to O&M. I plan on taking the confidence I have gained when I go off to community college. Recently I was accepted into the honors program, and I want to obtain my associate degree in music production. [Applause]

But I am extremely scared. I was starting to second-guess my decision. Music is a passion that I have had ever 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. They have a degree, and they also have a huge debt, and 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 will make me happy and also pay the bills. I guess time will tell.

You already probably know, but I want to reinforce what a big impact programs like the NFB STEM2U have on everyone involved. Children are our future. In order to make sure that they have the skills they need, 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 we can continue to have programs such as the NFB STEM2U so that we can reach children at a young age. I would love to remain involved in programs such as STEM2U, and I know I'm not the only apprentice who feels this way.

By the time the NFB STEM2U Baltimore program was over, many of the mentors asked if they could do it again. I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed helping the young students, and I know that the other mentors did, too. I'd like to thank the NFB for hosting NFB STEM2U in order to prepare blind youth for the future. I'd also like to thank Natalie Shaheen, Mika Baugh, and Ashley Ridder for being part of our conference calls every week leading up to the program. Their insight into how to deal with the juniors was very much needed. Thank you to my fellow mentors. There was no way I could have done it by myself! It took a lot of preparation and teamwork. But because we each pulled our own weight, we were able to give the juniors tools they will use for the rest of their lives.

Thank you to Mark Riccobono for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about a program that has impacted so many people's lives. Words aren't enough to show the gratitude that I feel, so 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!

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