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Thomas & Hackett

Lectio Divina: But Now I See

I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

From the  Poem “Amazing Grace” by John Newton (1725 – 1807)

Through the Eyes of Dave Thomas at DU

Dave Thomas’ title – Assistant Technology Specialist at the University of Denver (DU) – makes him sound ordinary, but that does not explain the half of it.  Dave Thomas is the personification of “amazing grace.”  He is an angel dropped from the sky who has selflessly helped our daughter, Eleanor Hooper, and hundreds like her to thrive in college.  Dave, an extraordinary guide, helps struggling students tackle undergraduate education, learning challenges, and life “away from home” for the first time.  So what makes Dave Thomas so special?  Many things do … For us his gifts were evident long before the weekend Tracy and I met Dave.  That weekend, though, was full of small miracles.  We met Dave in his office and saw him later that weekend at a concert.  Those encounters challenged the vision we thought we had for our own lives and the life of our daughter, Eleanor.

Back in elementary school on the East Coast, Eleanor’s self-esteem was at a low point.  She struggled sitting still and reading.  We knew that mastery in reading for our three children was their first step in academic success. We could not figure out what Eleanor’s “learning issues” were, so we took the offensive.  We had her tested, poked, prodded and retested to label what was wrong and help us “fix” Eleanor.  Early on we filled her free-time with tutors and counselors, who in turn proposed various strategies to get her through this phase.  The school administrators constructed an individual education plan (IEP), which their psychologists’ said was appropriate for struggling students like Eleanor. It may not have helped Eleanor, but it allowed us as her parents to check the box: we had left no stone unturned.  Since it was now up to the teachers and Eleanor, we could focus our attention elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Eleanor gradually picked up some classroom strategies on her own, which helped her survive in school: sitting in the front row, asking lots of questions, attending tutoring classes, studying in a well-lit, quiet space, and thoroughly reviewing her notes.  But keeping up with her daily class reading was always a serious source of frustration.  Her slower pace and partial comprehension became emotional burdens, which she dared not share with her classmates, and only occasionally shared with us.

Angels Among Us

Our family moved from Maryland to the Pacific Northwest, when Eleanor was in the 6th grade. Tracy immediately went in search of a new tutor.  She found a good one, Jennifer Woodson, who had posted her teaching credentials and tutoring talents on a message board at Fred Meyer.  Jennifer was our first angel.  Early on she noticed that Eleanor had some unusual eye movements, while scanning and reading a line of text.  Jennifer suggested we take Eleanor to see a vision specialist; she had heard of students receiving vision therapy from the Cornell Vision Center in Portland.  Tracy countered that “vision testing” was unnecessary because Eleanor had already been tested at the prestigious Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland.  The Wilmer Clinic results showed that Eleanor had 20/15 vision, better than average. Jennifer reasoned further that she wasn’t questioning Eleanor’s ability to see, she was questioning Eleanor’s brain’s ability to translate that sight into language.  Tracy listened to Jennifer’s logic and made an appointment that same week at Cornell Vision Center.

In came our second angel, Diana Ludlom, a specialist in neuro-optometric rehabilitation at Cornell Vision in Oregon. During that first appointment with Eleanor, Diana said, “Eleanor, I know exactly what is going on with you and we can help you.”  And thus began a journey into the components of the eye, the complexity of vision, the differences between sight and comprehension, and the glimmer of hope for Eleanor. Tracy remembers after a few sessions with Diana, Eleanor saying, “Now that I know the problem is with my eyes and not my brain, I feel like my whole life has changed!” We all cried with Eleanor that night and many nights thereafter, as we cheered her on.

Diagnosed with an aiming and focusing eye disorder called “accommodative convergence insufficiency,” Eleanor’s eyes were seeing, but not understanding, what was written on a page.  Jennifer had noticed Eleanor’s eyes jump from word to word, skipping the small words and struggling with the larger ones. Under the care of Diana Ludlom, Eleanor started to develop the coping skills to slow down at first, then to speed up to read accurately.  Diana helped Eleanor envision success in the classroom.

Diana guided Eleanor to practice vision therapy; Eleanor followed daily exercises with prisms to strengthen and soften her eyes. As counterintuitive as it sounded Eleanor had to soften her pupils to make her eyes stronger.  Eleanor added prescription corrective lenses to her routine and she began doing vision therapy exercises twice daily. The regime allowed Eleanor to strengthen her eye muscles so that she could start to read beyond seeing and towards comprehension.

Eleanor was playing varsity lacrosse in high school by this time, and just as she was strengthening her legs and arms, she was stretching and improving her reading capacity.  For the first time in her life, Eleanor started to have some academic success and she felt how sweet it was.  Slowly she made small and large improvements in her reading speed, accuracy, comprehension, and confidence.

DSC05087

Eleanor emerged from high school as a strong and motivated student leader who seemed ready for college, but Tracy and I were concerned that the college course-loads, particularly the extensive reading lists, would be daunting.  Eleanor received some time accommodation on her SAT’s test days and she scored well enough to be admitted, early acceptance, to the University of Denver.  She was determined to find a way to make it in college.

College Bound

In the summer months before she started at DU, Eleanor called the Office of Disability Services and the receptionist transferred the phone call to Dave Thomas.  Dave had joined the Disability Services department a few months earlier in the year.  Dave patiently took Eleanor’s first call and talked her through the technology tools that were available at DU to help students.  Dave also discussed an overall plan to help her manage the volume of reading in her first year courses.  They spoke several times that summer; Dave wanted to make sure that Eleanor arrived at DU with the laptop and the computer software programs which would read her textbooks and literature books aloud.  Books on tape have always been a wonderful pleasure reading aid for Eleanor. They help her follow along with the words, as the books are read aloud by voice-over specialists.

When Eleanor arrived on campus at DU, she stopped by the Office of Disability Services and asked to meet Dave.  Eleanor called Tracy right after the meeting and said, “Mom, I met Dave Thomas today … and he’s blind! Like see-eye-dog blind, Mom.”  Both Eleanor and Tracy immediately started to cry.  Eleanor explained that Dave became legally blind as a child and was declared completely blind after glaucoma and a rare eye disease.  Dave’s “eyes” now are his guide-dog, Hackett, who has been his companion for 11 years.

“Wow, Dave, how do you know so much about everyone’s disabilities?” asked Eleanor.  Dave replied, “I have had to deal with my disability for my whole life and I like technology, because it is getting better and better at helping people get around without their eyes.  More and more students are coming to college who need some help.  They have dyslexia or dysgraphia or are ADD or ADHD, and technology can help.”

From that first visit with Eleanor, Dave has been a source of inspiration for her.  She stops by the office from time to time to check in on the latest software or textbook programs for her computer.  Dave always made time to hear how things were going in class, in the library, in her social life, and what was happening at the local coffee shop.  He has been a knowledgeable and loyal friend on campus.

In November, 2011, Tracy and I flew to Denver to be with the Eleanor and our youngest daughter, Kathleen, who were singing with their a cappella singing group in a jamboree, called the Mile High Vocal Jam (MHVJ).  We arrived at DU on a Thursday, just after an early snowfall in Denver.  As we drove west on Evans Avenue, Eleanor spotted Dave Thomas and Hackett walking east on Evans toward Colorado Boulevard.  Eleanor had talked about Dave Thomas for the past 3 ½ years, and Tracy & I realized that we had never met him.  With Eleanor preparing to graduate in June, 2012 (with a major in Psychology and a double minor in Philosophy and Religious Studies), we felt we had to meet Dave and thank him for helping our daughter.  Eleanor said she would call Dave’s office and find a time for us to get together the next day.

Eleanor DU graduation Bolder Boulder & Color Run 2012 228

Eleanor (right) and her roommates, Emily, Anika, Caitlyn

We met Dave in his office in Driscoll on Friday and he immediately stood and held out his hand in space as a sign of welcome.  I grabbed his hand and shook it; Tracy and Eleanor both shook his hand and gave him a big hug.  Dave next introduced us to Hackett, his black Labrador retriever. Tracy said, “I am so happy to meet you, Dave.  Thank you for helping Eleanor.”  Dave smiled and said, “Eleanor is great!  She is on the ‘mild side’ among my students.  She is motivated and really wants to learn.”  Dave lamented that some students with disabilities are extremely demanding, wanting him to do the research on tools and foreign translations for them.  “Eleanor is easy, because she knows that she has to work harder than the typical student and she does what it takes to succeed.”

Looking out the window of Dave’s office at DU and seeing the bright-blue Colorado sky, the green and gold colors of the foothills, and the snow-capped Rockies in the distance, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful office vista. Tracy asked, “Dave, do you ever get mad that you can’t see the mountains?” “Not really,” he said. “But people tell me that Hackett has the most beautiful eyes: I would like to see Hackett’s eyes.  That would be the BEST!”

Thomas & hack 2

Dave Thomas and Hackett

Mile High Vocal Jam

We chatted about his parents and his life in Denver.  We wanted to know how he gets to different places around town and we wanted to hear about his other students at DU.  We knew it was a busy fall Friday and did not want to stay too long.  As we were leaving the office, Eleanor reminded Dave that her singing group, the DU IdioSINGcrasies, was performing at the University of Colorado, Denver on Saturday night at the MHVJ.  Eleanor invited him to come, if he could.  “I will try to make it,” said Dave, as he shook our hands and walked us to the door.

Eleanor DU graduation Bolder Boulder & Color Run 2012 193

Members of the IdioSINGcracies at DU

Eleanor told us that Dave had started at DU in the winter of 2006, after spending eleven years working in the developmental disabilities field.  The Disabilities Service website says that Dave “has a wealth of experience promoting the employment of people with disabilities, performing research, curriculum design and training on promotion of healthier lives for people with disabilities, and has used assistive technologies in his own personal and professional life for nearly twenty years. Dave holds a BA from Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota with a double major in Speech Communication & English.  And he also earned a MA in Communication Studies from the University of Memphis.”  The academic facts, though, did not give us the personal insights into Dave Thomas that our next encounter on Saturday night did.

The Mile High Vocal Jam is an annual jamboree among a cappella singing groups in the Rocky Mountain region. High Schools and Universities from Colorado, Kansas and the Rockies, drive to Denver or Boulder for the annual competition.  The competitors and judges are top flight and the songs, arrangements, choreography, and performances were even better, in our opinion, than American Idol.  This year the IdioSINGcracies repeated as champions of the MHVJ, which made all of the DU parents, students and fans ecstatic!  Take a look for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srfCB_Yn2WU   Sure enough, at the end of the concert, after the judges finished their deliberations, Tracy and I spotted Dave Thomas in the crowd.  We walked over to his spot in the back of the auditorium.  Hackett was dutifully sitting at his side.  Dave gave us his thoughts about the performers and how he was sure that the DU IdioSINGcracies would win!

Tracy asked Dave how he was going to get home after the concert and he said that a colleague was going to lead him to Tivoli Student Union building, so he could catch a bus ride east to his home.  Tracy and I had already decided to pass on the MHVJ “after party,” and we didn’t see the colleague who had promised to take Dave to the bus stop, so we asked him if we could give him a ride home.  After some gentle cajoling, Dave agreed and we walked to our Subaru. Hackett jumped awkwardly into the back of the car, and was a silent companion the rest of the trip.

After getting our bearings straight, we drove Dave to his house about 6 miles away.  During the 15 minute trip we learned that Dave had grown up in Maryland.  We peppered him with questions about Denver housing, real estate prices, and bus service.  We chatted about ADA compliance, technology advancements for the disabled, and his family.  Dave said that he had the full support of his parents, who had helped him find a good neighborhood and realtor in Denver.  When we arrived at his house, Hackett jumped out of the back and helped Dave nimbly negotiate the curb, the adjacent bushes, the newly planted oak tree and the neighbor’s fence on their way to the front door.  “Hackett knows this territory really well,” said Dave, as he walked up the flight of steps to his front door and into the house.  Tracy and I watched them disappear inside.  Then we simultaneously wondered out loud, “How does Dave do it?”  All of the tasks of homeownership seemed hard enough with sight: cooking, cleaning, bills, and laundry.  And Dave is blind, not even knowing when it is day or night.  Amazing!

Bartimaeus & Jesus

The next day Eleanor invited us to attend her favorite church which held an 11 am worship service.  Ironically, the Gospel reading from Mark told the story of Jesus arriving in Jericho, one of his last stops on his final journey to Jerusalem.  Walking with a crowd through the city, the disciples heard Bartimaeus, a blind man, call out to Jesus.  Even after being hushed by the crowd to keep quiet, Bartimaeus shouted louder, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  Jesus heard the plea and asked the man to come forward.  Bartimaeus jumped up, abandoned his precious cloak, and ran, unaided, to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you,” asked Jesus. “Rabbi, I want to see,” exclaimed Bartimaeus. “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately the blind man received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

What were the chances, in any random Sunday, during any random Gospel reading, that we would hear about blindness that day?  We felt that a small miracle from God had put Dave Thomas in Eleanor’s path.  He was the third angel who would help guide our middle daughter to a sense of self-worth that no one can deny.  And for Tracy and me it is evidence of another blessing, God tapping us on the shoulder and asking us to believe.  We feel so fortunate to have Dave Thomas enter our child’s life, when she needed both her independence and her DU guide’s help the most.

Eleanor DU graduation Bolder Boulder & Color Run 2012 312

Tracy, Eleanor, Henry Sandwich

 

Eleanor DU graduation Bolder Boulder & Color Run 2012 177

Eleanor, Barbara Ipsaro, Tracy

The weekend left us with a series of questions about our own vision:

  • What does Dave Thomas see that we are too blind to see?
  • Are we as brave as Dave Thomas to use our disabilities as a source of strength to help others?
  • Have we confused seeing with vision and understanding?
  • Are we willing to throw off our cloaks and follow our Rabbi?
  • Would Jesus claim that our faith has healed us?

Thank you, Dave Thomas, for being such an inspirational person, an “amazing grace” in Eleanor’s life, and for helping us question our senses and our beliefs in such profound ways.

– – –        Henry & Tracy Hooper

Eleanor DU graduation Bolder Boulder & Color Run 2012 309

Margaret Hooper (Santa Clara University ‘11), Eleanor Hooper (DU ’12) and Kathleen Hooper (DU ’14)

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