Athlete Spotlight: Where Is Paul Now?

Last week, you read about Paul from Camp Abilities Alaska. Paul is now 23 years old. He moved away from Alaska when he was 19 and currently resides in California. Rather than ask questions and solicit answers, I suggested he tell me his story.

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Paul was born blind. He is one of nine children. His parents, Steve and Linda, have two biological and seven adopted children. His siblings range from age 20 to 50 and are from Russia, Romania, Haiti and Alaska.  Paul was adopted when he was a year old from The Home of God’s Love, a Christian orphanage operating in Taiwan. He was raised in Anchorage, Alaska.

In most foreign adoptions, the contact between the birth parents and child is permanently severed. Not so for Paul. His birth parents live within two hours of the orphanage in Taiwan. With the help of orphanage translators, he is able to exchange letters with his birth parents. It is not an easy trip for them, so the communication only happens about every 18 months. But you could tell he appreciates how lucky he is to know his birth parents.

When asked about his wrestling career, he was both modest and proud. “I wrestled my sophomore year of high school and won only 5 matches. I made regionals but not state. My junior year, I won 22 matches but lost at regionals again – to the same kid. My senior year I finally made it to the state meet. I didn’t win but I made it.” 

He left Alaska at nineteen to attend the Hatlen Center, where, as he said, “It was time I learned to be an adult.” He learned to cook and wash his clothes and all the other tasks an independent person needs to know. One of the skills he had to master was crossing a street. “It’s harder than it seems.”

While at the Hatlen Center, one of his lessons asked him to coordinate – transportation, tickets, etc. –  a trip to Sonoma Raceway. He went to his first race in 2015. It was at Sonoma he discovered a love of NASCAR. “I’m a guy. I like fast-moving machines.” To understand the race better, he listened to races from the 1970s and 1980s. He loves #3 Dale Earnhardt and #23 Bill Elliot. He collects diecasts of the older race cars and has sixty-one in his collection so far. 

A year later, he had the choice of going back to Alaska or finding a job and “be an adult”. He knew if he went home, it would be too easy to lose all the skills and slip back into a more dependent lifestyle. Paul wanted to be independent. He found a job with Envision where he worked in retail at an Air Force base in Missouri.

Missouri was hard on Paul. It was far away from home (most of his family still lives in Anchorage) and he had no friends. Raised in a Christian home and valuing his faith, Paul was able to find a place at Northside Christian Church. It was here he learned how small the world is. One of the women in the church remembered a 1996 newsletter from The Home of God’s Love mentioning a baby who was blind from Taiwan. That was Paul!  This church he found at twenty had been a long-time supporter of his orphanage on the other side of the world. 

He enjoys baseball and he adopted the Atlanta Braves as his team. He’s never lived in Georgia, so he wasn’t sure how he chose the Braves but said they “just felt like my team”.

Paul remained in Missouri for 2-1/2 years before finding a job as a phone operator in California, where he lives today with two roommates. He goes to work at 4AM!

In his spare time, he likes to play Top Speed 3, an auditory racing game created by Playing In the Dark. He has such a love of racing, he used their code to build racetracks based on the races he listens to. On Sundays, he and five or more friends across the United States race each other. He’s even held a few international races. 

Camp Abilities Alaska

When he was eight years old his parents announced he was going to camp. It was the inaugural Camp Abilities in Alaska and it was Paul’s inaugural experience away from home. He said, “All I knew was that I was going.”

He celebrated his ninth birthday at Camp. He doesn’t know how his parents heard about Camp Abilities, but they always wanted him to be a “normal kid”. They wanted him to experience everything a sighted child experienced. At home, he even raced his siblings on bikes. When I asked if he ever got hurt, he said, “Of course. Doesn’t every kid.”

He went to camp every summer for twelve years. As we were talking, he said, “I never realized it, but that’s half my life. I always had a whale of a time. It was the only time I was around other blind kids.” 

His favorite activity was beep baseball. “This was a game known by the mainstream world. That was cool. It made me feel ‘regular’.” 

He laughed when he added, “And as a little kid, I enjoyed watching the twelve and thirteen-year-old kids test the boundaries. I may have gotten into a bit of trouble myself.”

I asked him if there was any activity he felt he could not do. “I credit my parents because I never thought I couldn’t do something.” He tried discus and shotput, canoeing, kayaking. “I had not been exposed to most of these. I must say I wasn’t particularly good at the track and field stuff but that was okay. I did like running on a real outdoor track.”

“I wasn’t a water kid, but I did understand why we all needed to learn to swim. I did it, but it was not my favorite.”

He told me there was only one bad experience: “I hated leaving. Every year, especially when I was younger, I would be sad for days after camp. I didn’t know if I’d ever see any of these people again.”

“Some kids aren’t as fortunate as me and Camp Abilities is the only time and place they get to be and do normal kid things. It’s a great place to build confidence.”

The Guitar

This interview would not be complete without an update on his guitar playing. From 2005 to 2008, Paul learned to play the  the piano. “I got pretty dang good at it.” He remembers clearly buying a “piece of garbage guitar” in 2009. Piece of garbage in hand, he learned to play, and he still plays today. 

The Next Five Years

When asked where he would like to be in five years, Paul said, 

“That is a golden question. I don’t know if I have an answer. When I was younger, I was told by my parents and other adults that finding a job would be harder for a blind individual. For some of us that is very true. So, my goal was to find work – that was the end goal. Well, I achieved that goal and now I need a new one. I’m always looking for a challenge.”

Paul and I continued to chat and then he had an ‘ah-ha’ moment.

“One of the things I’m very passionate about is technology for the blind. We are already at somewhat of a disadvantage but because our technology is behind, we are further disadvantaged. I’d like to become involved in that area.”

By the time we ended our conversation, he had a career goal and a few ways to start networking. 

“And I do hope to find someone special and get married.“

What I Wish People Knew

I asked Paul if he could tell the sighted community one thing, what would it be.

“When you meet someone with a disability and you are curious about something, just ask. Educate yourself.”

Gratitude

Paul, thank you for taking so much of your time to chat with me. You are a delight and I imagine one day soon you will be leading the world in the area for technology for the blind while strumming your guitar.

Go Braves!

~submitted by June Converse

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