Jeff Balek may not know what a book looks like but that doesn’t stop him from reading them.
Balek was born with retinopathy of prematurity, or Terry’s Syndrome, a condition where abnormal blood vessels develop in the retina. “I was born three months premature and the doctors gave me too much oxygen.” Blindness is a complication that can result after undergoing intensive oxygen therapy which he received to aid premature lung development.
But Balek has not let his blindness affect his outlook. “Even though I’m visually impaired it doesn’t mean I can’t do the same things sighted people can. I just do things in a different way, with alternative techniques.”
His first volunteer experience was in 2009 with a local elementary school where he taught kids how to read braille and use talking computers. in 2012, a friend sent him an email about a literacy program at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. Since then, Balek has been volunteering as a reading tutor with the Y Readers program, a literacy program that serves students in grades K-3 who are reading below grade level. “I just love working with kids and helping out in whatever way I can,” says Balek who employs twin vision books during his tutoring sessions. “They have braille on one side of the page and print on the other side. I read the first page to the students and I follow along as they read the second page.”
Balek’s approach to teaching mirrors his approach to learning. “Confidence is key,” says Balek who learned how to read braille when he was 5 years old. “When the kids see me reading braille it gives them lots and lots of confidence. They’ve never seen a blind person reading to a sighted person before.”
Balek volunteers twice a week for about an hour each day. He loves to use Dr. Seuss books and Green Eggs and Ham is a particular favorite. “It’s very rewarding for me to volunteer with the kids and it gets me out of the house and gives me something to do.”