Michael J. Cataruzolo
When he was 19-years-old, Mike Cataruzolo was hired by Perkins School for the Blind to care for two deafblind youngsters when they were not in class. More than forty-seven years later, he’s still at Perkins, where he continues to dedicate his time, talents and considerable energy to improve the lives of people who are disabled.
For the past 21 years, as Coordinator of Volunteer Services, Mike has recruited and trained countless volunteers who, in turn, have donated thousands of hours to the school, helping children who are blind, visually impaired or have multiple disabilities reach their highest level of independence. Before moving to Volunteer Services, Mike had been a teacher and Head of the Physical Education and Athletic Program at Perkins for many years. Today, in addition to managing the Volunteer program, he gives the best tours of anyone on campus, and is especially adept at helping children understand what it’s like to be blind. Mike knows his subject well, since he was born with a visual impairment, and uses a cane to find his way around.
Originally from East Boston, Mike’s visual impairment was not diagnosed until he was in fourth grade. He attended Boston Public Schools, and graduated from Roslindale High School, without being able to read. In 1960, he was hired to work at Perkins School for the Blind for $20 a month and room and board. He quickly found his vocation working with children. Although he was encouraged to go to college, he was not accepted due to his poor reading and writing skills. Then, when he was in his early twenties, a chance meeting changed his life forever.
"I thought I was incapable of learning," Mike recalls. "I was telling my story to a doctor at a clinic at Mass. General, when Dr. Sloane walked by and overheard our conversation. He took me to his office and told me to try looking through these glasses with a magnifier and illumination device on the right side. It was called a Keeler Magnifier, and it increased the size of print by twelve times. For the first time, I could see to read."
Mike soon caught up on his education, reading 12 – 13 hours a day and taking courses, first at Newman Prep, then at Quincy Junior College. He was offered a position as a Physical Education teacher and wrestling coach at Perkins, on the condition that he complete his degree. In the mid-60s, he took a leave from his job to finish his education at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and Health and a teaching certificate. He continued to study on a part-time basis while working at Perkins, eventually receiving a Master’s in Education from B.U. He also began teaching adaptive physical education, focusing on techniques and methods for teaching children with visual impairments, and became an honorary faculty member at Boston University. In the early 70s, he attended Boston State College, where he was granted a certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in Education and Law. More than ten years ago, Mike took another step in his continuing education, completing a rigorous process to become certified in his current profession through the Association of Volunteer Administrators.
Besides finding his lifetime career at Perkins, Mike met his wife, Patti, while both were working as teachers at the school. They were married in Perkins’ Chapel 39 years ago, and raised their two children on Charles River Road, where they still live, right down the street from the school. The couple’s daughter, Amy, is an interpreter for the deaf in Portland, Maine. Their son, David, is a hockey coach at Trinity College. Mike and Patti also have two granddaughters, Francesca and Stella. "Patti is all about family," Mike says proudly. "She lost her sight, as well as her sense of taste and smell to a brain tumor, but doesn’t let that stop her from volunteering in Perkins’ Elder Services Program, singing and square dancing…She’s my hero!"
An active member of the Watertown community, Mike has served as Vice President and a member of the Board of the Commission on Disabilities. He was also a Little League coach and President of the Watertown Youth Hockey Program. Mike has received many honors throughout his career including being named "Man of the Year" by the Watertown Tab & Press in 1999; inducted into The Carroll Society in 2003; and recognized by Bridgewater State College for his many years of community service and support of professional development. Being named a "Hero Among Us" by the Boston Celtics is a special honor for this avid sports fan.
Over the years, Mike has touched the lives of thousands of Perkins students, staff members and volunteers, as well as people in the Watertown community and beyond. In his current job as Coordinator of Volunteer Services, Mike works with hundreds of people, matching volunteers to the various needs at Perkins, in areas ranging from the Infant & Toddler Program to the Braille & Talking Book Library to the Assistive Device Center.
As he runs the Volunteer Program or leads a tour group around campus, Mike by example encourages people to view individuals with disabilities as people first, who can make a difference in the lives of others. "I hope people look at me and say, 'There goes Mike, he’s a nice guy,' not, 'He’s a blind guy,'" says Mike. "Giving of oneself to others is the ultimate achievement in life."