A place for Gonzalo

Gonzalo practices woodworking with Patricia in a classroom at Mi Lugar.

Gonzalo practices woodworking with Patricia in a classroom at Mi Lugar

February 11, 2014

"Always."

That's how long María Laura Tommei says she's known her son would be successful.

Tommei's 18-year-old son Gonzalo is deafblind. For many in his home country of Argentina, it's difficult to believe that a young man without sight or hearing can hold a job or plant a garden – at least until they meet his family.

Gonzalo's family has done everything to ensure his success. When they couldn't find a school that met Gonzalo's needs, they started their own learning center near their home in Rosario.

"We have always tried to think about Gonzalo's future," said Tommei. "We work hard to maximize the possibilities for him to have a dignifying and happy life."

Gonzalo's parents opened Mi Lugar in 2003. Since then, they have not only succeeded in maximizing Gonzalo's quality of life, but also the lives of dozens of other children and their families. Mi Lugar, which means "My Place," is a Therapeutic Education Center for children and young adults with deafblindness or multiple sensory needs.

"We chose the name Mi Lugar because we were looking for a place that we could feel was our own," said Tommei. "We needed a space for our children and their families to learn and be supported. Still today, there is no other place that compares to Mi Lugar."

Eighteen students, ages 4 to 26, currently attend Mi Lugar. Because of the center's limited physical space, young adults attend a Transition to Adulthood program in the morning and younger students come during the afternoon.

Mi Lugar provides more than just an academic education. An important part of the center's mission is to teach students to participate in their local community. Many activities and communication techniques are offered with that goal in mind.

"I think that Mi Lugar exposes children of all ages to an inclusive community – and that community empowers the students and their families," said Tommei.

Understanding that families play a crucial role in helping children with multiple sensory disabilities learn and thrive, Gonzalo's parents established regular parent teacher meetings and free parent workshops.

"No family chooses to have a person with deafblindness, but it is through that challenge that we grow and we make sure that they have everything they need," said Tommei.

Perkins International's Latin America headquarters, based in nearby Córdoba, helped launch Mi Lugar's parent services. When Mi Lugar wanted to offer advanced trainings, counseling services, and ongoing assessments to identify the unique learning needs of each student, they also turned to the local Perkins office for help.

Mi Lugar has had a profound impact on Gonzalo, especially his ability to communicate.

"Gonzalo is a hard working student and very clever," said Patricia Paredes, a teacher who has been working with Gonzalo for five years. "We have a very special relationship. I can understand every facial expression he makes."

Gonzalo also expresses himself through tactile sign language (hand-on-hand signing), gestures and tangible objects. Those tangible objects can represent physical things, or express needs and desires.

These communication tools have enabled Gonzalo thrive in many aspects of his life, in and out of Mi Lugar. Gonzalo stocks shelves at the community grocery store, has planted in a neighborhood garden, attended a teen dance, and swims independently. These activities are not only important milestones on a road to a more independent adulthood – they are signs of his parents' dreams coming to fruition.

"Although Gonzalo has faced many setbacks, he's always optimistic," said Tommei. "Even when things are difficult, he somehow finds the willingness to move forward and try new experiences – both social and vocational. I admire that about him a lot."

When is Tommei most proud of her son? Her answer is simple and direct.

"Always."