Life-changers -- that's how Catherine Aylesworth thinks of the team at Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Before she and her son, Brian, now 12, met them, there was a lot the family didn't understand.
They couldn't figure out why Brian could perfectly recall conversations and read single words on flash cards.
But he couldn't find small things or read books or sentences. When he wrote his name, the letters would tumble out on top of one another. He was 11.
Aylesworth searched for answers. School officials suggested the problems were cognitive. She didn't believe that. It took a specialist from Vista Center to provide the family with the missing piece.
Brian didn't have cognitive issues. He couldn't see.
As part of his assessment to attend Ocean Grove Charter School -- picked by the Aylesworths when the family moved to Santa Clara from Michigan last year -- Brian's mom had asked for a vision screening. A specialist from Vista Center worked with Brian and uncovered holes in his vision. He has a hard time seeing in general. And the more crowded things become, like lots of words on a page, the harder it is for his brain to translate the images.
"The No. 1 thing I felt was relief. I knew that we had found what the issue was," Aylesworth said. "But then you just feel really bad. I can't tell you how many times I had sat him down in front of a book or flash cards."
But Brian hasn't missed a beat. Now that he knows what to do, he's eager to do it, and if he keeps training his sight could improve.
He reads with special tools at Vista Center. There's a machine that isolates a word until Brian can see and understand it. It turns backgrounds yellow so the words become more distinctive to him.
He's one of the 160 children the center works with. Each year, more than 2,500 people with vision issues are assessed, attend support groups and receive one-on-one training from Vista Center, a 77-year-old nonprofit that serves clients in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Funding from insurance reimbursements, government grants and fees covers some of the center's costs, but it mainly relies on donations -- such as from Wish Book readers -- to provide services.
"It's so life-changing, you can't believe it," Executive Director Pam Brandin said. "There are so many stories. Someone who had been afraid to go out the door becomes so liberated."
The center's specialists are unique, Aylesworth said. "Vista Center came with the right people and the right attitude" to uncover Brian's mystery, she said.
"Sometimes it just felt like the end of the road," Aylesworth said. "But the road just kept going," Brian playfully piped in from behind her.
He was born early and faced many health issues. He required spinal surgery to help him walk, which he didn't do until he was 8. Initially Aylesworth was told he would never walk, never hold up his head and never talk.
"But I guess Brian didn't hear about that," she said, "because he certainly had his own ideas."
So the little boy who couldn't walk now gets around without a wheelchair. And the boy who couldn't read in January finished his first book in February. Now it seems he wants to devour them all.
"The first book he ever read was 'Little House on the Prairie,'" Aylesworth said. "Can you believe it?"
He's on his third white, red-tipped cane, having worn down the other two with use.
"Some of my students don't want a cane, but Brian begged for one," said Paul Raskin, the supervisor of Vista Center's rehabilitation department. Brian carefully tracks his progress and wants to do more than is required of him.
Once a week, Raskin takes Brian for walks, practicing using the cane and learning to watch and listen to the environment. The goal is "that by the time he is 18, he can go anywhere in the world by himself," Raskin said. "He seems to think there is nothing he can't do, and I agree."
For his mom, that's the future she has always wanted. She puts the thanks for that on Brian for his hard work and Vista Center for giving them a way forward.
"I want my child to grow up and be like every other little boy," Aylesworth said. "I want him to be just a regular guy, and for a while I didn't think that was going to happen."
Readers can help Vista Center provide services to clients such as Brian. Donations of $50 will buy a pair for sunglasses that enhance contrast for someone with low vision; $125 funds one hour of mobility instruction; $250 helps to pay for a customized learning program. Donate at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, go to www.vistacenter.org.