This article was originally published on March 28, 2012.
Like most kids at Baldwin High School, Nick Gardner is in the midst of navigating adolescence. But unlike most kids, Gardner must navigate—literally—with less than half of his sight.
No sweat. He'll just work twice as hard.
Gardner doesn't seem to mind. In fact, staying busy is his forte.
The 17-year-old junior from Baldwin Township, who has chorioretinal detachment that has blinded him in his right eye since birth and has left him with about half of his left eyesight, is more than a student. He's an actor, an athlete, and for the past few summers, has been preparing to be a working man.
"I'm one of the busiest blind people ever," he says proudly. "I don't go home after school very much."
Including this year, Gardner has performed in the past two Baldwin High musicals, staying late after classes to learn the songs and dances. He's also a third baseman and an outfielder for a Pittsburgh Miracle League baseball team—13-1 in the competitive division last year, mind you—and that's when he's not posting shutouts as a hockey goalie in gym class (against ordinary students).
"I'm pretty warrior-like in sports," he says nonchalantly. "I don't do half-bad at goaltending."
He's not all brawn, though. Gardner's a strong student and has designs on going to college. And other than sitting close to the front of the room and receiving assignments printed in larger font, he gets no breaks in class. The subject matter is the same as it is for other students, as are his teachers' expectations.
But certainly, there has been some other help.
Since his elementary days at nearby Saint Anne Catholic School in Castle Shannon Borough, Gardner has been receiving extra instruction at Baldwin-Whitehall School District buildings for visually impaired students.
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, headquartered in Homestead Borough, provides the itinerant teachers that give Gardner that extra instruction, which includes lessons in Braille and other visually impaired-specific studies in computers and reading.
And there's another Homestead group that has been just as important for Gardner—Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh. Blind & Vision, or BVRS, has been preparing the young man for his day-to-day adult life and has been helping him to think about a career.
A nonprofit organization that provides free services to folks like Gardner, BVRS welcomed him into its summer youth program in 2009 and 2010. Gardner spent five weeks of each of those summers living in dormitories at the organization's space in Homestead and went through hands-on training to gain necessary life skills, such as how to cook, clean, do laundry, exercise, use a walking stick and more.
BVRS calls that training "personal adjustment to blindness training," or PABT.
Gardner credits PABT with giving him confidence, including how to be his own person and how not to be shy about using his stick. He even carries that stick, or cane, around Baldwin High and isn't as shy about unsheathing it as he once was.
"Honestly, I think I've opened up more," he says, "not being embarrassed anymore. I'm fine with carrying a cane around."
In 2011, Gardner moved into BVRS' Employment Opportunities Project (EOP) program, which is designed specifically for those aged 14 to 21.
The EOP program, as explained by BVRS' Jeremy Gilchrist, who runs it, is the organization's only youth-centered program, and it places high-school students in job-shadow situations so as to help them discover what they might want to do for a career. It even helps to actually land jobs for visually impaired people, Gilchrist said.
Among the places that employ people who have been in the EOP program are Eat'n Park, Giant Eagle and Pizza Hut. Gilchrist said that jobs with those companies are usually for students ready to enter the workforce often straight out of high school, but many EOP students use the program to further themselves as young adults getting ready for college.
He's studied broadcast journalism at Baldwin and wants to do something similar in college—covering acting, sports or other performances.
"Right now, we're trying to find Nick someplace to work in the summer relating to radio or theater," Gilchrist says, "because he's really interested in that stuff, and sports."
Gardner credits BVRS with helping to give him the basic tools to pursue his interests and the moxie to pull it off.
"They've done a lot of great things for me for the past three years," he says. "I think I've definitely had a breakthrough—using the cane because of them, growing more confident and being more open to answering questions about my vision. And I definitely have a better understanding of what's going on with myself."
Added Gilchrist, "(Gardner's) very confident, or at least he acts with confidence.
"He's comfortable with his vision. He's the model student that we want to have because he's in charge of getting himself a job. It's his duty to ask me, 'Can you help me with this exact thing? Can you help me find people to call?,' but he's the one taking the lead on it, taking the initiative.
"He's able to do things on his own."
A lot of things. Which, after all, is just how Gardner likes it.
Read other Baldwin-Whitehall "Greatest Person" profiles here.