This story appears in the Summer 2019 issue of In Focus.
When students enroll in a Perkins Outreach course, they could be studying music and sound production with the Berklee School of Music. They could be learning to swim, run track and play baseball. Or they could be channeling Bill Nye the Science Guy with science experiments.
Among Perkins Community Programs, these courses are some of the most beloved—and most useful, since they provide the adaptations and skill-building that students may not get at their own schools. Short classes are open to both enrolled Perkins students and those who attend school elsewhere. They range from a weekend to five weeks, customized for children and young adults with visual impairments from age six through 22. Many take place during the summer; some students come from the Northeast, but Perkins sees kids from all around the U.S.
Part of what makes learning at Perkins unique is the focus on incidental learning—skills that sighted people develop through observation, like reading social cues for better social interaction, spatial relations for better navigation and more.
Supervisor Pat Ryan explains, "Someone who’s blind won’t pick up skills through observation like a sighted person. We might have to do a couple things to teach and make something accessible for them. These courses help with those small, nuanced lessons, too."
Cristin Geraci enrolled her son Tom in a course when he was in second grade. Tom’s now completed at least 10 courses.
During a cooking course last year, he texted her, “I just realized something. When I’m at Perkins Outreach, I don’t feel nearly as insecure about my social skills [as I do] at school. At school, I feel like I need to really try to appear as though I am able to look people in the eye, read facial cues and other stuff that I won’t be able to ever master.
“At Perkins, I’m with people who have those exact social impairments, so I’m actually better socializing with blind people. And I don’t need to really think about my social actions either—it just flows.”
He recently completed the Pre-Employment Program (PEP), which Geraci says was the most useful course to date. “Now he’s 16, and he’s more aware of his vision impairment and how it impacts his future. He’s really a go-getter—he’s aware he needs to build upon some more advanced skills for the future. This course made him feel very proud about where he is in this stage in life. With all the skills he’s gathered, he’s on track.”
Using what he learned, Tom’s requested an informational interview at a local radio station in the hopes of gaining professional experience and, eventually, a career path.
As a next step, the Outreach team is trying to reach more students that they haven’t yet had contact with. Most recently, this has manifested as pop-up events throughout Massachusetts. Ryan explains, “There are populations we’re not serving—cost or travel may be a barrier—so we try to bring awareness and service to those areas. We want to get out there and build in local communities.” Donor contributions help with this effort as well as funding the programs for existing and future students.
Adds Teri Turgeon, Director of Community Programs, “We hope that as kids try one of them, and we have an opportunity to share information with families, that they then in turn will become part of Outreach here.”
Geraci says the experiences have been invaluable for her son. “Before Perkins, he would ask, ‘When am I going to find kids like me?’” she remembers.
“He now knows other kids who have done the program with him over time. He’s a typical teen, texting them on the phone, meeting with them on weekends. It’s not just limited to the course. These are true friendships, and that’s the most valuable piece.”