Before Andrew Cabatingan can make a difference in this world, he has to master a complicated web of technology and learn to maneuver in a dark, painful existence, all so he can study at one of the most challenging schools in the nation.

With all he has already overcome, it may not seem like much of a challenge for the UC Berkeley freshman.

Cabatingan, 18, has Friedreich's ataxia, a degenerative genetic disease that has progressively robbed him of his motor coordination and eyesight while causing heart problems and diabetes.

Growing up in Gilroy, Cabatingan did not let his disease rob him of learning and enjoying life. He had a 3.9 GPA in high school and developed a keen interest in biology, thanks to a love of animals. When the disease left him in a wheelchair, effectively denying his dream of being a veterinarian, he simply changed his goal to earning a degree in molecular environmental biology.

"He's smart enough to get (to UC Berkeley), he's smart enough to make a difference in animals' lives, peoples' lives," says his mother, Maria Cabatingan. "He needs to be able to lead a productive life and make an impact, make a difference."

College life so far is nothing like what Andrew Cabatingan and his family expected. Unable to live independently on campus, Cabatingan's family drives him between Gilroy and Berkeley for classes, staying with him all day to help.

"One thing I have really been missing is a social life," Cabatingan says.

The Cabatingans chose UC Berkeley because it has one of the leading programs for assisting disabled students living on campus. But Andrew has a litany of challenges before he is ready to move to Berkeley and rely only on the services the college and state can provide.

"I don't know how people fall through the cracks like this," says Kevin Shields, director of UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Residence Program.

Cabatingan needs extensive training for independent living, Shields explains, especially because he is both in a wheelchair and blind. He also must learn several technologies so he can use a computer and complete his schoolwork.

To live on his own on campus and eventually enter the workforce -- the goal of Shields' program -- Cabatingan must accomplish goals that take some young, disabled students years to achieve.

"They say he should have been using this technology years ago, but we never knew it existed," Maria Cabatingan says.

Andrew Cabatingan needs a power wheelchair and a guide dog to move around on his own. Able People Foundation, a San Jose nonprofit that provides mobility products for low-income people with disabilities, obtained the wheelchair for him. But the group's founder, Paiman Komeilizadeh, is battling his own health problems and the group is in dire need of funds, leaving it unable to provide more help to Cabatingan.

And beyond just a guide dog -- which is "crazy expensive," Shields points out -- Cabatingan must put in hours of work to learn how to use the dog and chair in concert. Shields' hope is that "an orientation and mobility instructor in the South Bay who's retired sees this and says, 'I'd like to spend my summer out on the nearest schoolground with a big open space working with this guy.' "

"It's not just a matter of money, but time, too," Shields says. "He's got to learn how to get around on his own."

Readers can help Cabatingan and his family. Each $50 donation will help purchase a computer with add-ons, a GPS device and a smartphone for him to use at school, along with a personal attendant to help him on campus. Donations of $25 will go toward purchasing gas cards for the family's trips from Gilroy to Berkeley.

Readers can also help Able People Foundation assist more clients like Cabatingan. Each $50 donation will go toward refurbishing mobility equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs, batteries and motorized scooters for low-income, disabled people.

Neither Maria Cabatingan nor Shields believe that the current patched-together handling of Andrew Cabatingan's schooling is sustainable for long. But he seems unburdened by his plight, consistently wearing a smile that ranges from humored to sly.

Like any teenager, he can be sarcastic with adults -- when asked why he chose UC Berkeley, he says it was because he received a present on his first visit. "From a bird. The back end."

And like other teenagers, Cabatingan finds his inspiration in music. He says the song "Someday" from the Nickelodeon movie "Rags" inspired him to overcome obstacles and fight for a chance at a UC Berkeley degree. When asked why, Cabatingan, who previously struggled to speak even haltingly, breaks into song:

"I follow my dreams / You'd think they were nightmares the way they scream / I'm gonna believe / that someday, someday / I'm gonna be the next big thing."

Comments about Wish Book stories? Email wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972. "Like" our page at Facebook.com/mercurynews.wishbook.

HOW TO HELP
Readers can help Andrew Cabatingan with the resources he needs to attend UC Berkeley, and the Able People Foundation with its goal of providing mobility equipment to disabled clients. Each $50 donation will help Andrew purchase a computer with add-ons, a GPS and a smartphone to use at school, along with a personal attendant to help him on campus. Donations of $25 will go toward purchasing gas cards for the family's trips from Gilroy to Berkeley. Each $100 donation will help Able People Foundation refurbish mobility equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.

Online
To learn more about Able People Foundation, go to http://ablepeoplefoundation.org.