Blind woman helps others see potential
Post Independent Staff
She’s ridden across the United States on a tandem bike with an Outward Bound-based women’s program. She’s a rock climber, a runner, and a competitive downhill and cross country skier. All that activity comes in handy for training since she’s also a triathlete.
She also happens to have a seeing eye dog named Matt, because Nancy Stevens is blind.
Stevens, 42, has a number of non-athletic talents as well. A graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan with a degree in music, Stevens produced her own CD, “And I’ll Sing Every Day of My Life,” in 2000. And through her speaking engagement company, Nancy Speaks, Stevens gives presentations on disability awareness, goal setting, alleviating stress and improving self-esteem.
Stevens has given talks to, among others, Lucent Technologies, East West Resorts, the state of Colorado and the Environmental Protection Agency. She’s talked to numerous service organizations and dozens of schools from Colorado to Wisconsin.
On Tuesday Stevens gave a presentation to the Glenwood Springs Lions Club at the Ramada Inn. Her talk was actually more of a report back to the group of local Lions who had helped sponsor her latest adventure: a three-day whirlwind trip in November to Nicaragua to bring Braille reading and writing equipment to Santa Lucia, a school Stevens said is “the only successful school for the blind in Nicaragua.”
The Glenwood Lions gave Stevens $600, which helped pay for canes and equipment for the school’s students.
Strangers turn into family
How Stevens found herself in Nicaragua is somewhat serendipitous. On a van shuttle from DIA to Glenwood earlier this year, Stevens met D’Lisa Simons, a member of the Houston Rotary Club. Simons told Stevens she was getting ready to go to Nicaragua with a group of fellow Houston Rotarians to tour a new town they had single-handedly financed to house hundreds of people formerly living at trash dumps near Chinandaga, a city of about 125,000.
Simons knew of a school for the blind in Chinandaga called Santa Lucia, and knew the school needed supplies and training.
By the end of the van ride, Simons had invited Stevens to go along – and visit Santa Lucia.
“She told me I’d be an inspiration for the students,” Stevens said. “How could I turn that down? I couldn’t.”
Stevens got to work quickly putting together supplies to take with her. Through the Lions Club donation, she started lining up slates and styluses – the most inexpensive and portable way to write Braille – to purchase at cost. She contacted an ex-boyfriend who sold her a Braille writer for $250.
“It was a $600 writer, so he gave me a good deal, but if we were still together he probably would have donated it to me,” she said with a laugh.
The Houston Rotary Club paid Stevens’ airfare and lodging.
“I had my checkbook ready, but they said to put it away,” she said.
Stevens was about ready to head south, but she needed to brush up on her caning techniques first. Matt wasn’t joining her on this trip.
“Nicaragua doesn’t have an understanding of guide dogs, and there are no laws for them there,” Stevens said, “so we felt it best to leave Matt home.”
Once Stevens spent a day re-learning how to get around with her inanimate guide, she was ready to tackle her next challenge: travel to a foreign country without her trusted companion Matt, without Spanish language proficiency, and with a group of 10 strangers. Her acquaintance, D’Lisa Simons, had a family emergency and wasn’t going on the trip.
But by the end of the trip, Stevens said, the group had really bonded. “We were like a bunch of brothers with all the teasing,” she said.
Cane Skills 202
The Houston Rotarians spent their time in Nicaragua visiting Chinandaga’s town dumps, and Saint Matilda.
“The poverty blew me away,” Stevens said of the living conditions at the dumps. Stevens said, “It was sad to see barefoot kids going through the trash, with flies everywhere.”
Things were much better in Saint Matilda. There she met townspeople who now had homes, running water and small farming plots – quite a change from living among filth and garbage at the town dumps.
Traveling with her trip roommate, Stevens broke away from the group to visit Chinandaga’s school for the blind, Santa Lucia. The boarding school takes children from age 10 to 18, and besides providing scholastic instruction, also trains students for careers such as furniture building and massage therapy. Stevens said the main reason for blindness in Nicaragua is drinking contaminated water.
The school has 13 students, all of whom were elated to receive Stevens’ Braille equipment. They were afraid, however, of using the canes she brought.
“Nicaraguans have no concept of the blind,” Stevens said. “Most of the children in the school are orphaned since their parents don’t want them. And people drive like maniacs there and have no understanding of yielding to a blind person walking with a cane. So there was a lot of fear in the students.”
Stevens gave the children a crash course on how to use their new canes, which was “more like Cane Skills 202 not 101,” she said, and soon they were getting the hang of caning around their campus, where they live and go to school. She also set up the styluses, slates and Braille writer at the school, providing needed instruction.
“This equipment will help get these kids into public school eventually,” she said. “They’ll be able to communicate with their sighted teachers.”
Stevens said she wants to go back to Nicaragua, but only if she can go back to visit the children at Santa Lucia.
“There was one girl, 18 years old, who kept following me around,” she said. “She wanted to learn to use a cane, and she was so interested in the equipment I brought. There is so much promise there, and so much work to do.”
Stevens knows all about hard work. Stevens has been blind since birth – she was born three months prematurely and received too much oxygen, causing her blindness. Her world is far different than those of sighted people, but her uncommon and unrelenting self-assurance allows her to continually set her sights high.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t get scared or apprehensive – as when Stevens learned she’d be going to a Third World country alone.
“I was a little nervous before, knowing only one person, but not to know anyone – Yikes!” she said. “But a few deep breaths and a thought of `everything will work out fine,’ and off we went.”
Back in Glenwood Springs and reunited with her guide dog Matt, Stevens is back at work at the Social Security Administration facility where her office is rigged with the latest in Braille computer technology. She types on a regular keyboard, and stores her monitor behind her.
“There’s no need for me to put it in front of me since I can’t see it,” she said, laughing, “but it can freak people out sometimes.”
An apparatus called a Braille Lite allows her to type notes to herself in Braille and then retrieve them on a Braille keyboard.
And when she files Social Security claims for clients, a special printer makes both Braille and sighted copies.
Stevens is a native of Flint, Mich., but Colorado is in her blood. A skier since childhood, she moved to Winter Park because “everybody told me if I wanted to ski I needed to be in Colorado,” she said.
She moved to Winter Park with the intention of “ski bumming for a year,” and never left. She joined the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team, running downhill with a sighted guide in tow. Racing in Winter Park eventually led to Stevens competing on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, qualifying her for Paralympics in Nagano, Japan.
From 1992-97, Stevens was director of High Country Options, an employment agency for the disabled, in Summit County. She also began speaking to groups, providing motivational insight and life skills.
A budget cut shut down High Country Options, propelling Stevens into her new speaking career full-time. But a job offer from the Social Security Administration – she’d given a talk to the government entity in Denver – was too good to pass up. She had her choice of Durango, Grand Junction or Glenwood Springs. She chose Glenwood.
Now, Stevens has a full plate training for her next athletic endeavor, speaking to groups and organizations, taking trips like the one to Nicaragua, and working at Social Security.
“I handle disability claims,” she said, “and sometimes, I’ll get a call from someone with a disability. They may have been disabled for life, or have just become disabled. But they’ll be talking to me on the phone, and they’ll say, `You just don’t understand. You just don’t know how it is.'”
Stevens laughed – a sweet, kind of ironic laugh. “I’ll think to myself, `Oh, but yes I do.’ It’s all in your attitude.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.