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Blind youngsters 'see' their Idaho

by DEVIN WEEKS
Staff Writer | May 25, 2021 1:06 AM

People who are blind and visually impaired experience the world much differently from their sighted counterparts.

Jordana Engebretsen understands this from her work with blind students.

"One time I was talking to a person who is blind from birth and she said people treat her like a suitcase. 'They move me from place to place but don’t tell me where I’m going,'" Engebretsen, of Post Falls, said Monday. "No one tells them, 'This is the shape of the state of Idaho, this is where you are.'"

Engebretsen is the founder of VocaLife, an educational service with a mission to empower students with visual disabilities to enrich their vocation and life.

Originally from Ecuador, Engebretsen became licensed to work with blind students when she lived in Alaska and is in the process of obtaining her Idaho license to continue that work.

"I love to do camps for disabled children," she said. "I love to work with disabled kids. That's my calling."

Engebretsen, who is blind from lupus, thought about the suitcase analogy and created a new activity group for young people so they can learn about North Idaho and the space in which they live: My Environment.

My Environment met for the first time at the Post Falls American Legion on Saturday. Seven youths from throughout the Inland Northwest attended the inaugural activity group to make new friends, say hi to acquaintances and learn more about North Idaho.

With a handful of volunteers on hand, the youths explored Braille-embossed maps of Idaho and the U.S. as well as 3D models and wooden cutouts of the Gem State.

“One kid said it 'looked' like a shoe; one kid said a gun," Engebretsen said. "It was just fascinating in their minds to see how they saw their state."

They also learned about the state bird, the state flower and, of course, potatoes.

"We had a lot of fun with Idaho potatoes," Engebretsen said. "They did a competition with how many kinds of potato dishes you can eat — potato soup, potato salad, taco potatoes. The winning group was 13 or 15 ways to eat potatoes.

“When they went home," she said, "they knew their state."

This sort of activity for visually impaired youngsters is educational as well as social, for parents and the kids.

“It was nice for them to foster a friendship," said Fawn Owens of Post Falls, whose 13-year-old son, Alex, participated. "It was great. It’s such a nice opportunity for the kids to get together and do something fun. Jordana made it really fun."

The event was free. Sponsors were National Federation of the Blind of Idaho, North Idaho College, Dole-Sheehan, Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, VocaLife and Gary Whiby.

Engebretsen is planning the next My Environment for July 17.

"It will be outdoors," she said. "They can be outside playing together, and we’re going to end it with a talent show. The kids are really excited about it."

Donations to support My Environment can go to:

National Federation of the Blind of Idaho

C/O Don Winiecki - Treasurer

1422 E. Woodvine Court

Boise, ID 83706

Mark "My Environment" on the memo line so the funds are earmarked for the North Idaho activity group.

Info: 907-953-1039 or jmengebretsen2@gmail.com

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Courtesy photo

Volunteer Marissa Palazzo and 8-year-old Ezra Wright smile for the camera Saturday during the first My Environment activity day. My Environment is a new group for visually impaired youths to learn more about the world around them, starting with Idaho.

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Courtesy photo

From left, Marissa Palazzo, 13-year-old Alex Owens and My Environment founder Jordana Engebretsen snap a photo Saturday in front of the tank at the Post Falls American Legion.