Photo courtesy of Mr. Marc Ashton | Adonis Watts readies his oxygen masks as he prepares to “snuba dive” about 15 feet below the surface.
Eric Lindholm ’19
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as 12 blind students independently operated sailboats for a week-long adventure of a lifetime.
Imagine being on a sailboat, battling the gusting winds, attempting to steer the ship against high waves not by simply turning with a big captain’s wheel. Imagine having to muster all the strength to horizontally-rotate the bar that connects to the sail in order to conduct a maneuver called tacking, which is turning up and through wind. Now imagine coordinating the direction of your journey while being blind, and imagine your chances of landing safely and not crashing on a desolate island.
Adonis Watt ’22 from Brophy and Cesar Yanez ‘23 from Loyola Academy represented the Brophy community in the Blind Buccaneers Challenge, a week-long sailing trip off the coast of Puerto Rico. With 12 self-sufficient blind students fully operating sailboats and navigating the open-ocean course, the challenge emphasized effective communication skills, trusting in every teammate, and learning to discover innate self-confidence and shatter limits.
Throughout the challenging four months of training at Lake Pleasant the Blind Buccaneers underwent to prepare for their adventure, Yanez described how important learning to communicate to his group effectively to prevent needless injury.
Recounting the challenges of learning to communicate on the boat, Yanez said,“When tacking, we had to let them know when we were tacking so they could lower their heads and not get hit by the pole.”
The term tacking is the vernacular for a common sailboat maneuver used to turn the boat up and through the wind. When tacking, one sailor horizontally rotates the bar attached to the sail to the desired angle needed to complete the turn.
Watts echoed Yanez’s statement that communication was a key for the success of the trip. When asked about a particular challenge about his teammates, it “was just working together and communicating because I really didn’t know all of them,” Watts said.
With Yanez the only person Adonis knew prior to training, creating friendships while simultaneously learning to effectively communicate under new circumstances pushed Watts to expand his capacities.
Brophy Alum Marc Ashton’84, the 2015 recipient of the St. Ignatius Loyola Award for Distinguished Service and the executive director and CEO of the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC), was largely behind planning and fundraising this trip.
To Mr. Ashton, who felt called to serving the vulnerable blind population because his son Mr. Max Ashton ’14, current Alumni Service Corp member, was only three months old when diagnosed with Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, a genetic eye disease that took away most of his vision. Becoming involved with FBC’s board and due to his successful fundraising skills and entrepreneurial mindset, Ashton became the CEO in 2007. Since then, he has since navigated the organization through difficult financial times, positioned FBC to be the leader in educating blind children nationally, and raised over 10 million dollars to create the largest and most innovative preschool for the blind.
Organizing seemingly audacious adventures with blind students is a tremendous testament to Ashton’s true belief the blind’s capabilities and potential.
Ashton first met Yanez in the fifth grade at Harris Elementary when he witnessed one of FBC’s instructors teaching Yanez to play the trumpet. “He can’t read sheet music like you and I can read it. He has to read it first with his fingers in braille, memorize it, then play it, memorize the next line, and play it, and I go, ‘this kid is smart,’” Ashton said.
Successfully surmounting all the challenges of being a blind student, Yanezwants to potentially study the technologies available to the blind to make them more accessible and provide a better user experience.
“Talkback is a screen reader that, well, does exactly what the name says, so I can open apps and watch Youtube videos,” Yanez said when describing the technologies he uses at Loyola and in his daily life.
“At least on my phone (an Android), when I open Google Maps, it sometimes freezes and doesn’t read everything,” said Yanez.
Additionally, Yanez has pushed the limits to what seems possible for a blind person by learning to play the piano self-sufficiently without any assistive technologies. “I know C is before the two black keys,” Yanez said. “At Loyola, Mr. Ashton’s son has a small band thing for just the Loyola kids,” said Yanez, “so that’s where I’ll try to keep learning the piano.”
Yanez has fully embraced the mission of FBC and developed an unstoppable achiever’s mentality, combined with his pride as being the oldest of four brothers and three sisters.
“I can be like everyone else because I don’t consider being blind or visually impaired a disability, I consider it to be a diagnosis, which is also FBC’s slogan,” Yanez said.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to be more independent, so that’s been really helpful,” said Yanez.
Additionally, the teachers at Loyola have conditioned Yanez to be a fully independent and equally-treated student in their classrooms.
“They still give me the same amount of homework as the rest of the class, which I think is pretty good because they’re not giving me less because of being visually impaired,” Yanez said.
Yanez gives credit to Ashton’s efforts in his personal growth and journey as a person who is visually impaired. “He’s been very helpful in basically almost everything” Yanez said. “I would consider him a great friend.”
Success according to Ashton, is “having blind students grow up, go to college, and go to work, and take care of his or her own family.”
“And that is success, being able to do for yourself what you want done.”
“Look at Cesar and Adonis, they’re at Brophy, and they’re blind, Ashton said. “That’s success.”
Ashton says the greatest force in persuading and influencing blind people to reach their full potential, that their parents, friends, and society sometimes fail to encourage them to strive for, is through examples.
“For Adonis Watts, the only reason he’s at Brophy is because he met Max Ashton,” Ashton said. “He met Max eight years ago and said, ‘if he can go to Brophy, I can go to Brophy. And his mom and dad said the same thing,’” said Ashton.
“Having examples from this generation helps the next generation. One day, Adonis and Cesar will be an example for another kid,” Ashton said.
“How many blind kids in this country in the next five years will be playing football because of Adonis?” Ashton posed. “Because they read his story somewhere.”
The Blind Buccaneers trip is just one of several limit-shattering trips Mr. Ashton, his team of FBC employees and members of the Brophy community have taken to actualize the wildest dreams of blind children and give them a moment of glory.
In 2009, he led an eight person team to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In 2010, a group of blind hikers took the Grand Canyon rim to rim in a single day. In 2013, he led the efforts for three blind swimmers to traverse the frigid, choppy waters from the Alcatraz prison to shore.
“The only way to make non-believers into believers is through passion and success,” Ashton said.
“I had parents say there’s no way …. I’m going to let my daughter out of my house and go to Puerto Rico with 24 strangers,” said Ashton. “I had to point out that if you don’t let your daughter do this, or don’t let your daughter learn how to ride a bike or go to college, she will be in your house when she’s fifty-years-old living with you.”
Yanez created his own moment of glory and self-fulfillment during the trip despite not having any background on swimming.
“My favorite thing, was when [my team] convinced me to jump off the boat because everyone else was doing it and it wasn’t far down, and I was very nervous at first, and finally jumped off the boat and it turned out being really fun,” Yanez said.
“We didn’t learn any swimming at Lake Pleasant,” Yanez added.
Mr. Ashton said his most astonishing moment of this trip was witnessing Yanez’s moment of bravery.
“My moment of trepidation was, I’m sitting on my boat, he’s sitting on his boat, and we are like 200 yards away… All of the sudden, I see a little, black dot in the distance, and this is at dusk when the sun is setting. And it was Cesar swimming from his boat to my boat all by my himself,” Ashton said.
“He overcame his fear of swimming, and he was swimming towards us.”