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LAB Scholarship Winner Hits the Ground Running

As any seasoned traveler will tell you, it is often the diversions and side trips we take that lead to our most meaningful discoveries. Cheryl Austin, this year’s winner of LAB’s George Zermas Memorial Scholarship, would definitely agree. In an interview which was recently featured on the July 19 edition of “Horizons,” our own Jim Barrett had the opportunity to speak with Cheryl at length about her life, her many accomplishments and the challenging course that lies ahead for her.

It all began conventionally enough. For the first eight years of her life, Cheryl spent an idyllic childhood in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. “I feel like it’s different from the childhood that a lot of kids have these days,” she explained. “That was still the time when kids came home from school and just kind of ran out the front door into the neighborhood and didn’t come home until things got dark and Mom was yelling to you that it was time for dinner. I really remember a lot of friends in my neighborhood and riding bikes in the streets, jumping rope in the driveway, making forts in people’s basements, you know, kind of your typical childhood.”

Cheryl did all she could to downplay her disability. She was born with albinism, a genetic condition that results in reduced pigmentation in a person’s hair, skin and eyes. Specifically, the pigment deficit affects the eyes in three ways: lower visual acuity, nystagmus (involuntary movements of the eyes) and increased light sensitivity. In spite of the visual impairment that her albinism caused, Cheryl did all she could to fend for herself without the help of low vision devices. “Because I wasn’t accepting of my own impairment, I probably didn’t use some of the tools I should have. . . I didn’t want to use magnification in the classroom but, for the most part, I just wanted to be a normal kid. . . like everyone else. So I honestly might have made my life more difficult than it needed to be. . . Then there’s the flip side: I had a challenge and I knew I had a challenge, but I wasn’t going to let anybody stop me.”

This determination was the bedrock that formed the foundation for a string of successes for Cheryl. Due to her father’s career changes, she and her family left her childhood home at age eight and ultimately moved to the Bay Area in California. Upon completing high school, she obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she focused on economics for the majority of her studies. As graduation approached, however, she realized that she did not want to pursue a career in that field. So she shifted gears and entered a three-year program in nutrition. After successfully completing an internship in San Francisco, she became a registered dietician.

When her friends began moving on and she had few ties that bound her to California, Cheryl decided to come back to New England to be closer to family. As a nutritionist, she has been employed at the Greater Boston Food Bank and at elder services in both Cambridge and Summerville. More recently, she worked in nutritional research at Boston University Medical Center and then at a public health research company in Cambridge called Apt Associates.

Without a doubt, Cheryl could have continued along this successful career path indefinitely. However, she started to believe that something was missing. Just as she had not felt the fire of commitment to economics, her research job seemed to lack a crucial element. “When I first started to think about making this career change into education, I had a long heart to heart with my husband about where our financial situation was and whether I could walk away from my well-paying research job that I really didn’t enjoy all that much on a day to day basis. . . . It was a great environment, great people and we did great work, but it just wasn’t my passion. I was trying to figure out what my passion was. . . He was incredibly supportive and there was an opportunity to take a teaching job at Arlington High School and he said, “Do it. Give them your notice and spend a year in the school and see if education is even for you.”

With the backing of her husband, Jim, and the determination to find her true vocation, Cheryl took the position as a one-on-one assistant to a ninth-grader with autism during the 2011-12 school year. She spoke in glowing terms of the young man she worked with, and the experience affirmed her determination to pursue her career goal. The next summer, she took on a volunteer job at the Perkins School for the Blind’s summer sports camp. As a visually impaired athlete herself, she was particularly drawn to the idea of helping blind kids to get more in touch with their bodies and to embrace physical fitness. She made such a positive impression on her supervisor that she was offered a permanent position at the school.

These days, Cheryl works in Perkins’s outreach program. Most of her students attend public schools in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut and receive services from Perkins that address their visual impairment-related needs. “Our programs . . . run all the times that the regular school year does not . . . on school vacations and during the summer. We focus on something called the expanded core curriculum, nine different areas that have been determined as things that students with visual impairments need extra work in.” These areas include non-academic skills such as adaptive technology, social interaction, communication methods, career exploration, sensory efficiency, mobility and others. Each program weekend is based on a theme. This year, she is also supervising the summer employment program, which gives students their first taste of independence while still having adult supervision to fall back on. Program participants find jobs at Perkins or in the local community and live with roommates in their own apartments. Cooking, home and money management and orientation and mobility in the “real world” are the order of the day. While some participants are taking baby steps and others seem to leap quickly forward, Cheryl seems to love watching students come out of their shells in their own unique ways. It’s safe to say that she has definitely found her passion.

Cheryl has undergone another transformation as well. Gone are the days when she spent so much of her energy trying to hide her disability. “It’s kind of come full circle. I accept it now, I talk about it now. And I have students who benefit from that and see me as a role model,” she elaborates. And what a role model she is: successful professional, motivated student of her new career as a teacher of the visually impaired, loving wife and visually impaired marathon runner. Yes, you read that correctly. Since first entering the Vision 5K race in 2005 with the encouragement of a co-worker, Cheryl has embraced the running lifestyle. Ironically, the only reason she chose to run in the visually impaired division of that first 5K event was because the event director encouraged her to go after the division prize, which he thought she was capable of winning. That day in her very first race, she came away with second prize. Since then, she has run several half and full marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

In ways both actual and metaphorical, one thing is clear: Cheryl Austin is definitely not standing still. LAB is excited to support her as she reaches high to achieve her next goal, that of becoming a fully qualified and certified teacher of the visually impaired. And while in many ways she has traveled a great distance from her suburban childhood, there are core values that remain unchanged. Cheryl, the intrepid traveler, continues to revel in her life’s journey and follow her dreams, wherever they may lead her.

Suzanne Wilson

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