Though she won’t graduate for another two years, North Huntingdon junior Jessica Welch-Mussori is working to build the confidence she needs to live independently, through Pennsylvania’s summer academy for the blind and visually impaired at Penn State.
“I was a little nervous, but this camp is helping me learn how to do things on my own,” she said. “We’re learning a lot of tips and about resources that I didn’t know about before.”
Welch-Mussori has retinitis pigmentosa, which prevents her from seeing to her full potential.
The upcoming high school junior said she has a hard time seeing more than 10 feet away, has lost about 90 percent of her peripheral vision and has complete night blindness.
She is among 23 high school students from across the commonwealth who are part of the ninth annual Pennsylvania Summer Academy for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired, which Penn State Outreach and Online Education spokesman Matt Caracappa said is focused on enhancing independent skills for high school students transitioning to postsecondary education.
The three-weeklong academy is sponsored by the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Bureau of Blindness and Visual Impairment Services, and held through Aug. 3 in partnership with the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network and Penn State’s Colleges of Education and Health and Human Development.
The academy includes activities such as scavenger hunts, cooking classes, laundry demonstrations and more.
The program also featured an Assistive Technology Expo on July 15, which showcased systems developed to aid the blind and visually impaired.
“The assistive technology is what I think is most helpful — like using an ATM by plugging in a device to the machine and it will speak to you,” Welch-Mussori said. “But I also just like all the activities and getting the chance to make new friends.”
Using the food lab at the Henderson Building, the students learned on Tuesday about ways to more easily cook recipes like macaroni and cheese and s’mores.
High school senior Dakota Over, of Big Springs, said one of the lessons was learning ways to use different senses to determine things such as when a meal is finished cooking.
He said they’re told to listen to the water boiling before the macaroni is added, and to put a finger near the top of a cup or glass to help determine how much drink to pour before it spills.
“It’s really helpful because we go through the process and then learn more techniques,” said Over, who has an eye condition called achromatopsia, which prevents him from seeing colors, gives him difficulty with depth perception, and makes him extremely sensitive to light.
Guerrieri said a majority of the students gain confidence through the academy, which allows them to have a smooth transition into independent living.
“It’s helping them build independent skills, and we’re simulating real work situations,” she said. “They have a lot of fun, but it’s also very intensive, and the transformations are really incredible.”
Guerrieri shared a story about a student who was thinking about spending an extra year in high school because she didn’t feel comfortable being on her own.
“I think she changed her mind,” Guerrieri said. “This program is preparing her to graduate on time — she might not need that extra year.”