February 15, 2022
DON’T BE AFRAID TO STEP OUTSIDE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
If Juandez could relay a message to kids, or anyone, he would tell them, “Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.” Those are words he has lived by since he started experiencing his visual impairment as a teenager. Dez, as we call him here around Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired, was diagnosed with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) when he was in the eighth grade. LHON is an inherited form of vision loss that usually begins when a person is in their teens or twenties and for unknown reasons affects males much more than females. Those with LHON start with blurring or clouded vision and it usually starts in one eye before moving to the other. Over time, the individual’s vision worsens and they experience a severe loss of sharpness and color. Vision loss is a result of the death of cells in the nerve that relays visual information from the eyes to the brain – the optic nerve. In most cases, the vision loss becomes profound and permanent. Normally, vision loss is the only symptom of LHON. Currently, there is no approved treatment or cure.
As a young boy who is known for his basketball skills, Dez had to take a quick turn and deal with this new way of seeing things – literally. Dez loved playing sports, most of all basketball, and he is good. So good that he was close to being invited to participate in the Jr. Olympics. He wanted to play basketball in high school so much that he decided he would write a letter to the high school basketball coach and ask if he could be on the team. He didn’t really care what his role would be on the team – he just wanted to be on it. Dez was not going to stop doing what he loved because of this “little vision problem.” The coach said yes and gave him a shot. Before long he was used as one of the top defensive players for the team and plays were designed especially for him. You must bounce pass the ball to him and call his name. Players would get penalized if they didn’t adhere to the adaptations put in place to help Dez. They had to remember to say his name – they had to remember to play as a team and he was part of that team!
After high school, Dez became part of the Clovernook Center team and has been with the organization for nine years. He started working in the Social Enterprise department in the file folder area before moving into the Braille Print House working in the Bindery as a Collator Operator. Chris Faust, President & CEO of Clovernook Center, knew Dez had a special calling. This past year he asked Dez to join the Youth Services Program as the Coordinator for the Adaptive Sports & Leisure Program. Dez loves his new role and wants to continue to send the message to kids who are blind or visually impaired that sometimes they have to step outside of their comfort zone. He is living proof that there are things you can do, like play sports or climb a rock wall, go bowling, or work a full-time job, “You just need to give the kids the confidence to do it – that’s how dreams come true.” Dez knows there are struggles and frustrations along the way. He mentions that while working so hard to play basketball, he got hit in the head by the ball time and time again. But, he never stopped playing, he didn’t care how many times he got hit – he was never going to quit.
Dez says that you know you are doing what you love when you get paid to work for something you would do for free. He wants to see the Adaptive Sports & Leisure program grow and is confident that it will. Dez sees kids being able to participate in the current activities such as tennis, boxing and skiing but also hopes to offer them opportunities to learn adaptive gardening, painting, guitar, theatre and much more.
In addition to his job with Clovernook Center, Dez also works with kids in the community through Courtside Takeover, a 501(c)3 organization he founded. Courtside Takeover offers a 3-week, skills-based basketball camp for kids in the summer. The camp invites kids of various ages and skills to attend for just $10 and to top it off – you get a free lunch and goodies to take home. Dez says he can’t do it by himself, so he reaches out to others in the community – coaches, players, etc. to help him get it done. Once again, he says he has to step out of his comfort zone and ask people to join him in his efforts – people he doesn’t know – but he feels it would help him accomplish the goals he sets out to do. Courtside Takeover recently launched a podcast where he interviews local athletes and coaches and shows film from local basketball and football games. He says he could never do it alone – he has to step out of his comfort zone, network and ask people for help. Dez likes to look at the bright side of situations and what we know here at Clovernook Center is that Dez is the bright side of our days – every day!Back to News