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 of survival.
“It allows him the opportunity to reach his sight potential,” Duchaine says. “It’s about learning what he has and strengthening his abilities.”
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 dance.
“We’re really trying to listen to what parents have suggested,” says Kevin Hurst, director of operations for Chicago Lighthouse North.
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 Sensory Play.
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 rehabilitation services.
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.