Karen Sanborn Prize Winning
This story by Karen Sanborn Lovett ’04 won first place for feature writing in the 2007 New England Associated Press News Executives Association contest. The story ran in the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel in Summer 2006. Karen is now a reporter with The Telegraph in Nashua, N.H.
By Karen Sanborn
She passes under he Appian Way gate at Keene State College.
"Do you know where we are?" the woman with Chelsey asks.
"Um ... the science center?"
It's a guess. It's not right.
They're still a little ways from there, says the woman, Kathleen Turner, before she pilots the pair further down the college's main thoroughfare.
The two are among just a handful of people on campus today. Other freshmen won't arrive until tomorrow. They're here early, and with purpose.
Chelsey, an 18-year-old from Claremont, has been nearly blind since birth. Turner is an orientation and mobility specialist from Concord who since last year has helped Chelsey learn how to get around.
The two are close. Together, they walked the halls of Stevens High School in Claremont. In Chelsey's kitchen, Turner taught her how to make meat loaf.
But today, Turner's job is to show her the ropes of this new, wide-open world.
Chelsey holds Turner's arm like a lobster claw, trailing her by a half-step. This position is called "sighted guide," which lets Chelsey keep her own pace and feel Turner's movement up and down slopes.
They start tracing what will be Chelsey's path from her dorm, Huntress Hall, to the Redfern Arts Center, where the music lover will have two classes starting Monday.
Chelsey already looks the part of a college student. Her long, dark-brown curly hair frames a thin face and a strong jaw. She's petite, only 5 feet 2 inches and 90 pounds, and today she wears capri pants and a preppy, blue-striped shirt.
This is not the teenager's first Keene State tour. She attended a six-week introduction to the college this summer, earning eight credits. She also learned how to get around some sections of campus.
The college appealed to Chelsey, an aspiring Spanish major, because of its accessibility. And, she says, "I just really liked it. The atmosphere, the small class sizes. There's not too many hills. If there are too many twists and turns, I get mixed up quickly."
Chelsey is legally blind, but she can see some colors and contrasts, such as bright white lines on black pavement. She can't see details unless they're an inch from her nose.
That means while mapping the campus, she has to feel for clues, such as surface changes, or designated landmarks, such as granite posts or benches.
Turner and Chelsey stroll down the sidewalk, past the gym, around a series of curves and finally, to Wyman Way, a street that cuts through the south end of campus.
Long ago, Chelsey learned to cross streets only when she's totally
focused and ready to go, Turner said. But there are challenges.
Hybrid cars, which silence when they stop, or very loud construction
noise, can make it hard for the blind to know it's safe to cross, Turner said. And when snow falls, it muffles sounds and covers landmarks and color-contrasts.
Chelsey and Turner cross, reaching the arts center.
"Can you hear the waterfall?" Turner asks of the fountain in Brickyard Pond, which neighbors Redfern. "As long as that's on, you'll know you're here."
Turner wants Chelsey to practice the route again. They backtrack to
Huntress Hall and start over.
At a curvy crossroads near the arts center, Chelsey pauses.
"Left," she says decisively.
Turner beams. This time, Chelsey's correct.
At Chelsey's house in southern Claremont, the dogs greet you first:
Stormy, an old German shepherd, and Electra, a raven-haired Chihuahua.
With two weeks to go before school starts, Chelsey's doing what most teenagers do when summer's days are numbered: hanging out with a friend.
She and her longtime "partner in crime," Megan Knight, are camped in Chelsey's room on the second floor. It's cozy, with angled ceilings, a purple bed and all the technological requirements of teens today: a TV, laptop and DVD player.
Chelsey's lounging in comfy cropped pants and a N.H. All-State Music Festival shirt.
She's a music buff, loving modern rock, dance beats, classical, jazz and even Irish punk.
A second alto, she sang in the Stevenaires, a select group at the
Claremont high school.
When it came time to sign up for classes at Keene State, she picked
psychology and language courses, plus music cultures of the world and concert choir.
She's not thinking about classes now, though, as she chomps on yellow gum and trades wisecracks with Megan.
Chelsey's thick glasses, mostly for protection, dramatically magnify her pupils.
"We call them instant anime eyes," Megan jokes, referring to the popular Japanese cartoon art.
Chelsey logs onto her laptop. It's equipped with a computer program that
reads aloud documents, term papers, e-mails, her AOL Instant Messenger friends list, Web sites - even her blog on the popular site Live Journal.
The reader's voice is male and monotone. Chelsey displays her computer wizardry, punching the keys so fast that by the time he's read the first syllable, she's zipping to the next thing on the screen.
Monotone Man can hardly get a word in edgewise.
Not that he'd be able to, with Chelsey and Megan dishing above him about high school memories.
The yearbook comes out. They flip to a picture of them in the "best
friends" section, smiling, arms entwined.
Leafing to individual seniors' photos, there's Chelsey - and the quote she left behind:
"I once was lost, but now am found, was blind and still can't see ... so just get over it."
That, she says, is for all the people "who gave me crap. Like, whatever. To everyone who judged me because of my vision impairment and who didn't get to know me.
"That's for you, too."
As a youngster, Chelsey did things people never thought she could do, said her mother, Lori A. Mullen.
She learned to ride a bike without training wheels. She could roller
blade and ride a scooter. She even learned to downhill ski through the New England Handicapped Sports Association.
Chelsey also did plenty of other regular kid stuff, playing hostess at
slumber parties, for one.
But as she grew up, making friends got tougher.
"It was the hardest part: socialization," Mullen said. "Kids don't tend to befriend her."
She didn't go to the mall with girlfriends. She didn't bring boys home
or go to parties.
"Sometimes people would say stuff and I'd want to punch them," Chelsey said. "Little kids would get really close to my face. I hated that."
Being social is a challenge for anyone who's blind, said Shelley C.
Hochreiter, a Hanover-based teacher for students with visual
Hochreiter has worked on and off with Chelsey since she was 4 years old.
She taught Chelsey to face people when she talks to them, to point at something if she's describing it, Hochreiter said.
But for Chelsey, an important skill - reading facial expressions - is
out of the question.
Instead, she must try to understand tones of voice.
"That's also what hinders the visually impaired person," Hochreiter
said. "Somebody thinks that a blind person is being rude if they don't wave or say hi. They can't see you. There's a lot of misinterpretation."
Jane A. Warner, director of Keene State College's Office of Disability
Services, said it's hard for blind students to meet others - plain and
"There's this big loop," she said, rounding her arms to demonstrate.
"Students go around them because they don't want to run into them.
"They watch and they're in awe, but they don't say anything."
In high school, Chelsey mostly hung out at home, sometimes with close friends, and used the Internet to meet other people. She concentrated on school. The first two years at Stevens were sometimes lonely.
Then, suddenly, during Chelsey's junior year, she had a change of heart.
"I was like, you know, whatever," Chelsey said. "This is how it's
supposed to be. Screw you. I'm going to do my own thing."
"Her own thing" turned out to be dipping into a natural well of humor and sarcasm. She learned to laugh at her disability.
"What are you, blind?" still generates a giggle in her. "I'm a big fan
of Helen Keller jokes."
Now, her mother said proudly, "She's not one to let things bother her."
Her intelligence has always been "off the charts," Mullen said. Chelsey earned a top honor awarded each year to just one senior at Stevens. She graduated ninth in her class and earned enough academic scholarships to pay for her first year at Keene State and then some.
"I have mixed feelings," Mullen said of her daughter's pending
independence. "I like having her around. It'll be lonely for me.
"On the other hand, in college, my hope is that she'll meet truer,
Just then, Mullen looked up at the ceiling of her living room, and then over to the staircase where her daughter appears every morning.
She said, to no one in particular, "What am I gonna do without Chelsey?"
Boxes and baskets and containers cover every inch of the room, located in a corner of Keene State's Huntress Hall. It's move-in day.
Marilyn Mullen, Chelsey's grandmother, spreads bright orange sheets and a sage green blanket over the bed, tucking them in.
Shaylor Duranleau, Chelsey's 19-year-old brother, hooks up all the
electronic equipment, wires like spaghetti spilling behind the desk.
Space is tight, especially for the embosser, a bulky machine that prints documents in Braille.
Lori Mullen turns around the room, unloading stacks of shirts and shorts into drawers.
Chelsey stands quietly in the middle, the eye of the storm.
It took three cars to get everything and everyone here. Three cars and 40 miles and 18 years of hard work.
"I'm stressed," Mullen says. "I'm re-thinking the socks, here."
"They're all fine, Mom," Chelsey insists.
Her brother finishes the wiring. He grasps his little sister's hand,
shepherding it across each piece of equipment.
Here's the laptop computer. The scanner. The Braille embosser. The
regular printer. The television. The DVD player.
"Sweet," Chelsey says. "Awesome."
He wraps her in a hug and tells her, "'Bye. Be careful."
Later, Mullen puts her daughter through a similar drill.
She ushers Chelsey around the room, indexing inventory. The towels are behind the door. Extra sheets beneath the bed. Socks in the top drawer: white on the left, dark on the right.
Mullen sets Chelsey's alarm clock, reminding her that if there's a power outage, she's got to ask someone to re-set it.
They head to the grocery store and pick up some essentials: candy bars, yogurt, sodas, lemonade, laundry detergent. Mullen picks out a white-capped bottle so Chelsey can distinguish it from the blue soap.
At the register, Chelsey tries using her debit card. It doesn't work.
She tries again. Fails again.
Frustration sets in.
Another thing that goes on her list to fix.
Back in the dorm, Mullen shows Chelsey the bathroom. She reminds her to step over the ledge and pull the shower curtain.
There's oh so much to remember.
By mid-afternoon, it's time for the last stop: the laundry room, located in the dorm's basement.
It's like a dungeon, this place, with cold gray walls and a single,
Washing machines line the wall, numbered one to four. Students swipe identification cards on a module at the far end of the room, and then punch the number of the washer they're using.
The numbers, however, are smooth. Completely indistinguishable to
someone like Chelsey.
To boot, the dryers aren't lined up, but stacked. And they have a whole different set of numbers.
"We'll have to get the instructions Brailled out," Mullen says. She
swipes back her bangs, presses her head, exhales. "This is going to be hard."
She tells Chelsey that for now, she can bring laundry home on weekends.
This does no good.
Her daughter has turned away.
"You all right?" Mullen asks, rounding to Chelsey's face.
"No, you're not," she murmurs, drawing back the dark drapes of her
daughter's hair. Mullen hooks Chelsey into a hug. They unleash the first tears of the day.
"All right," Mullen says with a sniffle, casting a final, weary look at
the laundry room.
"Let's go back up."
Eighteen years ago last spring, Mullen ate Easter dinner on Sunday and went to bed with stomach pains. She was in her 24th week of a normal pregnancy, which typically lasts 40 weeks.
The next morning, Mullen went to her doctor. After examining her, the doctor ran out of the room and called an ambulance. Mullen was in labor.
She was raced to the hospital and whisked into surgery. Chelsey Marie was born soon after, weighing just over a pound.
Then, the doctor detected a second heartbeat. Mullen hadn't known she was carrying twins. She'd scheduled an ultrasound for the end of that week.
A second daughter, Mallory, was born.
Both twins struggled, Mullen said, but Mallory wasn't strong enough to make it. She died 13 hours after her birth.
Chelsey, her mother said, was a fighter.
The doctors "told me it was going to be a roller-coaster ride," Mullen
said. "They were right."
Chelsey would be okay one day, but the next, she'd develop pneumonia or her lungs would collapse, Mullen said.
Her daughter spent four months in the hospital. But before she was
released, doctors discovered that Chelsey had retinopathy of
A disorder that affects premature infants born before 31 weeks in the womb, retinopathy of prematurity is caused when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout the retina, according to the National Eye Institute. Those vessels are fragile and can leak, scarring the retina and detaching it, causing impaired vision or blindness.
Doctors tried to stop the problem, but couldn't, Mullen said. Chelsey
had surgery to re-connect one of her retinas, but there was no saving her sight.
Chelsey's near-blindness kicked off a lifetime of adjustment for her and her mother, who split with Leo Victor Duranleau, Chelsey's father, when Chelsey was a baby.
Growing up, Mullen cut her daughter's food and picked out her clothes. She made sure furniture and toys were always in their place so she wouldn't stumble.
Specialists from different social-service agencies helped with Chelsey's development, Mullen said.
At first, her daughter was "a texture freak," Mullen said, meaning that she was highly sensitive when touching anything. Occupational therapists brushed her arms or had her dig into bowls of rice to develop muscle awareness.
Hochreiter, Chelsey's longtime helper, familiarized Chelsey with the
layout of her house and yard - the difference between pavement and grass, for instance.
She and other vision teachers taught Chelsey Braille, Hochreiter said. Aides modified classroom worksheets and activities so she could do them. If the teacher handed out a picture of a tree, a pond and a fish, an aide would outline the objects in different textures.
"She's a hard worker," Hochreiter said. "She has always loved school and always wanted to do well. She's always been a very bright little girl.
"Well," Hochreiter said, on second thought, "She's not a little girl any more."
On the first day of college, Chelsey emerges fresh-faced from Huntress, her unruly hair tied in a neat ponytail. She uses her cane to navigate the steps, but on the last one, she miscalculates, stumbling.
"Oh, that was good," she mumbles, picking herself up.
But that doesn't ruin Chelsey's sunny mood. She had lunch on Sunday with a friend from Claremont and that night met her neighbor, a fellow Spanish major and Irish punk-music fan.
"Everyone's been great," she says, her face aglow. Ever so quietly, she begins humming.
The walk to the Redfern Arts Center isn't flawless. She makes a couple wrong turns, once entering a student lounge accidentally, but she arrives in plenty of time for her class on music cultures of the world.
Inside, students shuffle loose-leaf paper and notebooks.
Chelsey unloads her BrailleNote, a machine that looks something like a futuristic typewriter. With it, she punches certain combinations of buttons, notes to be stored for printing later.
When class begins, Professor Joseph Darby hands out papers, dropping them gently in her hand. Later, his squeaky white-board marker is Chelsey's cue to take notes. She pounds the keys, noting vocabulary words and concert dates.
After class, she stops by Elliot Hall to pick up two boxes of cassette
tapes, which contain audio versions of her textbooks.
Back in her dorm room, Chelsey runs her fingers across the tapes. She can't find the titles.
"They really need to switch to CDs," she says. "It would make my life a hell of a lot easier."
At lunch, Chelsey is faced with negotiating the colossal Zorn Dining
She finds her way to the hamburger station. Collecting french fries is an excruciating task. Chelsey can't get the tongs to clamp them. She keeps fishing, keeps coming up empty.
Finally, when a new batch arrives, she patiently dishes them into her basket.
The next class, concert choir, is located again at the arts center. This time, she aces the trip. Sure-footed.
In class, a fellow student offers her a hand up the first step. Without Chelsey's asking, another student helps her fill out an information form.
Professor Diane T. Cushing hands out sheets of music. Chelsey takes none. She listens for her part by ear.
Finally, it's time to sing. The basses, tenors, altos and sopranos each take a part of "Do, Re, Mi."
Soon, the room fills with the rich resonance of voices.
Among dozens of students, Chelsey blends.
Mid-song, she cracks a smile.
At last, she's found home.