For a moment, it looks like Marla Garstka is surrounded by junk:
sparkly pompoms, shiny Mardi Gras beads, a fluorescent slinky. But
then she starts to move the items toward 16-month-old Michael
Duchaine, then left and right, observing his responses and eye
movements, praising him for every sign of progress.
Some of Garstka's teaching ability is instinct, she says, and
some is born out of years of experience. Garstka has worked for The
Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
since 1984. Now she is the director of children's programs at the
organization's new facility in Glenview.
Michael is a part of the Early Intervention program for ages
0-3. His mother, Deb, of Wheeling, says she trusts Garstka
"wholeheartedly," and thinks the therapy will make a big difference
for her son, who was born at 23 weeks and given a 17 percent chance
"It allows him the opportunity to reach his sight potential,"
Duchaine says. "It's about learning what he has and strengthening
Garstka says that concept is at the heart of all of Chicago
Lighthouse's children's programming, which also includes a
Children's Enrichment program to prepare preschool-age kids for
mainstreaming, the Kool Kidz Club and Teen Scene.
"We never say 'no' and 'can't'," she says. "We build on every
little success they have and celebrate every moment. … We're going
to try everything their peers do."
So for Michael, that means gazing at himself in a mirror or
moving his head toward the beads, while for older kids, it could be
playing sports, watching a movie or attending their first
"We're really trying to listen to what parents have suggested,"
says Kevin Hurst, director of operations for Chicago Lighthouse
Those suggestions mainly focus on two aspects: socialization and
physical exercise. Visual impairment and blindness have low
incidence in young people in the area, so kids who are blind may
feel isolated or left out, according to President and Executive
Director Janet Szlyk. To combat that, the Chicago Lighthouse brings
kids-and their parents-together.
The brightly lit center also offers Mom & Tot groups and
The Chicago Lighthouse has also partnered with Great Lakes
Adaptive Sports Association and Adaptive Adventures to provide
kayaking, tandem cycling and track and field.
Of course, the children's programs are just one piece of The
Chicago Lighthouse's services. The Glenview facility opened in
January, thanks to a grant from the North Suburban Healthcare
Foundation, in large part to serve the aging population.
The facility offers a free legal clinic, optometry,
psychological counseling and occupational therapy. The Adaptive
Technology Center showcases technologies and devices that allow
clients to access print materials and computers.
"They see the possibilities of what can be done they never
thought they could do," says Tom Perski, senior vice president of
Clients give him a "top 10" list of things they would like to
read, whether baseball cards or cookbooks, and together they
determine which devices make that possible.
Technological developments from Apple also mean that iPads and
iPhones are more socially acceptable to use, so kids especially can
fulfill their desire to fit in, Szlyk says.
"I want to give Michael every opportunity," Deb Duchaine says.
"I really believe he can have a pretty normal life."
Elizabeth Diffin is the assistant editor at Chicago Parent.
Elizabeth Diffin is the senior editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.
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