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Thursday, July 7, 2011 11:55 pm

Summer with the blind in Bolivia

Springfield teacher volunteers her skills

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Springfield teacher Molly Clesen, seen here with special children's books written with print and Braille in both English and Spanish, is volunteering part of her summer to teach blind and vision impaired children in Bolivia.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Molly Clesen may be 4,200 miles from home, but she’s still in a familiar environment: the classroom.

Clesen, a 26-year-old teacher of blind and visually impaired students in Springfield School District 186, is spending part of her summer teaching kids with vision impairments in Cochabamba (Co-cha-bomb-ba), Bolivia, a city of more than 608,000 people situated in a valley within the Andes mountains.

Clesen just finished her first year of teaching in Springfield, after one year spent teaching in the Chicago suburbs and three years of teaching in Macomb. Though she originally had planned while attending Illinois State University in Normal to teach deaf and hearing impaired students, Clesen says a “very persuasive” academic advisor convinced her to try the program for teaching the blind.

“I absolutely loved it, so that kind of set me on my path,” Clesen says, adding that she also earned her master’s degree in orientation and mobility – teaching safe, independent travel skills to the visually impaired – at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

She mostly concentrates her teaching efforts on seven blind or visually impaired students in Springfield schools, a job she finds very rewarding.

“I like getting to work with kids on a one-on-one basis because I feel like you get to know them better, in a different way,” Clesen says. “You get to know a lot more of their quirks and how to work with them. When I first started, I thought that I would really excel with high-academic, challenging students, but I’ve found that I really take to kids with multiple impairments; they may have ADHD or autism. I like it because it’s such a mystery and such a puzzle, and each one is so completely different.”

Now, Clesen is volunteering at the Manuela E. Gandarillas Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Cochabamba, a nonprofit school teaching disadvantaged blind children. The school is named after a blind female war hero who led a band of women, children and the elderly against a Spanish occupying force during the Bolivian War of Independence in 1812. The trip was arranged through Sustainable Bolivia, a group whose mission is to “promote economic and environmental sustainability while providing global educational opportunities and work experience,” according to its website.

Clesen and a friend who is still studying at ISU decided to volunteer together after both studied Spanish in school.

“Both of us are really passionate about other cultures and about working with the visually impaired, so this really brings those two worlds together,” she says.

Aside from the usual accoutrements one must carry when traveling to South America – heavy-duty bug spray, medicine and travel visas, for example – Clesen also took donated toys, learning materials and other gifts specifically made for blind children. Among the donations were soccer balls with rattles inside, books written in English, Spanish and the Braille versions of both languages, and several sets of a tool called a “slate and stylus,” which allows the visually impaired to write in Braille by punching small holes through paper in a special grid. Three types of slate and stylus were donated by American Printing House for the Blind, along with large-print Braille calendars, Braille rulers and special “quick draw” paper that puffs up when marked with a special marker.

It’s an expensive trip made more difficult because each volunteer must pay his or her own $2,800 in costs to avoid depriving the school of badly-needed money. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, Clesen notes, adding that two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.

Though Clesen is still raising money for her trip, her first donation came from a younger brother who is serving in the military in Iraq. So far, Clesen has raised about $1,800 – much of which she is donating to the school where she’ll be volunteering. The cost of her trip is essentially coming out of her own pocket.

Clesen also hopes to bring back a better understanding of how to do more with less.

“We’ll be working with a population that just doesn’t have – they just don’t have,” Clesen says. “If they have technology, it’s very old, but we up here depend so much on it. To know that, in another part of the world, ‘Hey, you know what, we do just fine without it,’ I’ll be really interested to see how they do it, almost to help me see what we take for granted up here.”

Clesen periodically posts updates on her volunteer trip at www.boliviablindmission.blogspot.com/.
For more information on Sustainable Bolivia and the Manuela E. Gandarillas Rehabilitation Center, visit http://bit.ly/blindbolivia.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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