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The Summer of Independence
by Carol Castellano
Reprinted from Future Reflections

My daughter Serena had just graduated from elementary school. We spent many mornings that summer practicing the route from our home to the Junior High School, where Serena would be entering seventh grade. The route seemed complicated. There was an auto repair shop along the way where cars and pickup trucks often jutted out onto the sidewalk. There was the blended curb at Main Street. There were high hedges that blocked traffic sounds and a driver's view. There was the busy driveway of the school to be negotiated. Serena and I both felt a bit daunted by the task.

In July we put our practice sessions on hold for awhile. Serena was about to leave for the Buddy Program at the National Federation of the Blind's Louisiana Center for the Blind. Run entirely by blind persons, the four-week program promised learning activities, friendships, and fun to blind/visually impaired fourth to eighth graders. My husband, son, and I put Serena on a plane bound for Ruston, Louisiana. The airline assured us that they would take good care of our girl on the flight and make sure she made her connecting plane. Even with their assurances, I felt heavy-hearted until we heard later in the day that Serena had arrived safely at her destination.

Four weeks is a long time for a family to be without one of their children! I couldn't wait to make that first phone call during week one, to see how Serena was doing. A cheerful female voice greeted me. The young woman identified herself as Serena's counselor, and said that Serena was doing fine. Serena's voice was a little shaky, but she said she was having fun and working hard. She told me she was living in an apartment with two roommates and a counselor. She mentioned picnics and movies and swimming at a lake. Their days sounded busy, with classes in the morning and activities in the afternoons and evenings.

During the call of the next week, I asked Serena if she'd tried any new foods during her stay in Louisiana. I was thinking of the gumbo and jambalaya and crawdaddies that might be served in that part of the country.

"Yes," Serena answered. "I've had new foods. We had Hamburger Helper. It was great! And we made Garbage Dip. I'm going to make that for you when I get home."

It turned out that a major part of the program is for the students in each apartment to plan, shop for, and prepare their own meals. Thus, the appeal of Hamburger Helper!

In the phone call of the third week, we heard about horseback riding and potluck dinners, art class and dancing. Serena was beginning to miss us quite a lot, but there was only one more week to go. The counselors assured us that she was doing fine.

The day of her return finally arrived. We really missed our girl, and I found myself practically in tears as we paced the airport corridor waiting for the plane to land. A few moments after we spotted her smiling face, I encircled my daughter in a relieved hug. I automatically reached for her hand and felt a slight drawing away before the small hand settled comfortably in mine.

"Serena!" I exclaimed. "You haven't held hands with anyone for a month, have you!"
"I guess not," she responded after a moment of thought.
"And I bet you haven't been guided by anybody, either," I added.
"Not really," she replied.

The enormous significance struck me.

"Our job," I whispered to my husband, "is going to be to stay out of her way!"

In the first few days after Serena's homecoming, I was amazed at how many times I had to check my hand, as I reached out of habit to grab her hand, move her, turn her, guide her. Each time I was struck both by the utter importance of disciplining myself not to touch her and also by how terribly automatic it was to do so! And this was in a family that was well aware of the importance of independent movement. I realized that too often we still had taken the easy way out (in the short term) and pulled Serena along.

As the days went on, Serena told us about the activities at the Center. She learned how to sweep, vacuum, do laundry, and clean the bathroom. Welcome home, kid! Serena explained that in addition to doing the work of keeping the apartment clean, the students also attended classes in daily living skills. She also asked if we could buy the ingredients for that Garbage Dip. Mmmmm.

This child who had just lived on her own for a month—no mom to get out the cereal, no dad to grab the milk—now automatically moved to do her share of household tasks. We loved her new self-reliance. It was the most natural thing to Serena to continue taking care of herself. It was we who were so conscious of the difference. We had to learn how to keep the process of independence going and not get in its way.

Serena told us more and more about the program. We learned that there were daily, individualized classes in Braille and computer, with the teachers starting at whatever point was right for each student. There were also daily cane lessons during the ten-block walk from the apartments to the classroom building.

There was also plenty of fun. In addition to the horseback riding and swimming, the students went bowling and roller skating. They learned how to play goalball. They visited a waterpark and an amusement park. They attended art classes and dancing classes. They baked brownies and bread. They went out to dinner and the movies. There was also time for hanging around talking and sharing thoughts about being blind.

Every day, Serena continued to demonstrate the results of her month of independent living. In addition to her self-reliance and initiative around the house, she seemed socially more capable, too, joining in confidently to conversations and speaking in a stronger voice. She figured more things out for herself and was more aggressive in her problem solving.

It was in her movement, however, that we saw the most dramatic results. She was much more assertive in her movement now. She traveled with a new self-assurance that seemed to have as its underlying assumption, "Of course I can do this. Why on earth would anyone ever question it?" Even the way she carried herself had changed. Her head was high, her shoulders resolute. She looked as if she had finally claimed the treasure that was rightfully hers!

I began to feel as if some kind of magic had taken place. I suppose it was the "magic" of a child responding to well-thought-out activities taught in a total-immersion setting by competent blind role models and mentors in an atmosphere of support, encouragement, hard work, and fun!

The Center's program culminated in an impressive travel experience. The students and counselors went as a group by bus to a local shopping mall. There, the students were paired off and given assignments to complete. Partners were allowed to help each other if necessary. Counselors followed unobtrusively and only intervened if a student really needed help.

Each pair of students had to find the food court and ascertain what types of food were available. Then they had to order lunch at the restaurant of their choice, find a table, and eat. After lunch, Serena's task was to locate the movie theater and find out what movies were showing. Her partner had to find the hardware store and then locate a certain section within it.

"You did all that?" I asked Serena in disbelief. "You went to a mall and found a restaurant and bought yourself lunch and located the movie theater?" I was amazed! Serena had never been given this kind of challenge before. She rose to it beautifully! No wonder she seemed so confident and self-assured.

One day not long after her return, Serena said to me, "By the way, Mom, the route to the Junior High? Gonna be a piece of cake."

With gratitude to program directors Pam Dubel and Joanne Wilson for the thought and energy they put into this wonderful program and with loving thanks to my husband Bill Cucco for giving me the courage to let Serena attend.

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