Reaching for Independence

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

A couple of weeks ago, Vinessa Killingsworth got an assignment from her home economics teacher. On her own, Killingsworth was to plan a luncheon menu for six to eight people, buy the groceries, prepare the food, serve it, and clean up afterward.
Killingsworth, who was born blind, rose to the occasion.
“I didn’t have any cooking skills when I got here. I didn’t even know how to chop an onion,” said the 33-year-old, who has been at The REACH Center in Tupelo since April 17. “I didn’t think I’d like it, but now I actually enjoy being in the kitchen.”
REACH, located on Pegram Drive in Tupelo, is part of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, and specifically helps the blind become independent.
“What we have here is called Structured Discovery,” said Carol Conyers, director of the program. “It’s a very specific method of teaching blind skills. Students commit six to nine months of their lives to this program. They learn everything in total darkness.”
Even students who have some sight wear shades, also called blinders, so they, too, learn in darkness. Some of the instructors at REACH are blind, and those who aren’t wear shades at least one day a week so they can empathize with the students.
“Everything we do here is to help them be independent, to live on their own,” Conyers said. “We want them to participate in their own lives.”

‘Pretty intense’
Each day, the 12 full-time students who live in the dorms at REACH have eight hours of instruction: two in home ec, two in mobility, two in industrial arts, one in Braille and one in computer technology.
Before students can graduate from the program, they must be able to navigate certain streets and intersections in downtown Tupelo and outside of town for their mobility class.
For industrial arts, they use power saws and other tools and equipment to make a piece of furniture for their final project. Killingsworth is almost finished with a corner cabinet.
For Braille class, they might Braille a menu for a Tupelo restaurant so that blind patrons can enjoy their independence. Or, they can create a Braille cookbook, which is what Killingsworth is working on.
For computer technology, they have to design their dream vacation using the Internet.
“Mine is to Australia and New Zealand,” Killingsworth said excitedly.
And finally, for home ec, where they also learn living skills, such as laundry and house-cleaning, they are required to host the six-to-eight-guest luncheon. Once that’s completed successfully, they have to plan, shop for, prepare and serve a buffet for 25 or more.
At her luncheon, Killingsworth prepared a tossed salad, marinated pork tenderloin, steamed broccoli, a brown rice casserole, dinner rolls, iced tea and strawberry parfaits.
“The reason I chose this menu was because in February, I was diagnosed with diabetes,” said Killingsworth. “I’m trying to eat better for a healthier life.”
For her upcoming buffet, she’s planning to make spaghetti, spinach sautéed with Parmesan cheese, garlic bread and brownies.
“She’s done all this cooking in one form or another, just not all this together, at one time,” Conyers said. “Doing it totally by yourself and serving guests adds a little pressure.”
Killingsworth said the hardest part of the luncheon was trying to figure out when guests were finished with their salads and ready to move on to the entree, or when they needed more iced tea.
“It was pretty intense,” she said after it was over.

Cooking comes first
From the first day students arrive at the center, they begin cooking instruction, Conyers said.
“They learn to work with a heat source and they memorize where things are in the kitchen,” she said. “All the recipes are on tape or Brailled. The names of spices are typed in Braille and taped on the outside of the jars. We encourage them to also use their sense of smell and touch – open the jars, smell what’s inside to make sure.”
Students are required to learn to work a microwave, a George Foreman grill and to light and cook on a barbecue grill – without any vision.
“They learn to make biscuits, cornbread and yeast bread from scratch, too,” Conyers said. “They have to learn to cut up a raw chicken and to make half-a-dozen salads. We try to teach them to eat healthfully.”
Students in the REACH program are referred to the center by a counselor.
“They have to be on somebody’s caseload,” Conyers said. “The state pays for our students to attend the program.”
Some graduates, especially the newly blind, leave the program and go back to their former jobs; some go on to college; some become social workers or cooks in nursing homes; some get jobs as telemarketers.
“Being blind isn’t who they are. It doesn’t define who they are,” Conyers said. “Or at least, it doesn’t have to.”
Killingsworth, who moved to Tupelo from Hattiesburg, has already earned her college degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in paralegal studies with a minor in political science.
Her plans are now to do some volunteer work with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services so she can get some practical experience and hone her skills.
If she gets a full-time job in Tupelo, she’ll stay here and work. If she doesn’t, she’ll move home to Hattiesburg, where, she said, she’s certain she’ll be in charge of cooking and housekeeping.
“Eventually, I want to work for the Social Security Administration,” Killingsworth said. “There, I could work with people with disabilities to help them get what they need.”