Five days a week at 5:45am, Kelly Mitchell boards an Access-a-Ride van at her house in Superior for the ride to the Anchor Center for Blind Children. Like her fellow staff members, Mitchell is passionate about her work and devoted to helping visually impaired children. And she can relate to them uniquely, because Mitchell is blind.
“The thing that really strikes me about her is she makes kids feel very comfortable and safe,” said Laura Moran, an early childhood special education teacher in Anchor’s preschool, whom Mitchell assists. “And she’s walked the journey. She understands what it’s like.”
Mitchell has discussed her visual impairment with the 3- and 4-year-olds in Moran’s class. She is a beacon of hope to the youngsters and to their parents, who see Mitchell when they bring their child to the classroom and she guides them as they sign in on a brailler to start the morning.
“I’m going through the same stuff that they are, and I’m still here doing it,” Mitchell said. “So if I can do it, then so can they.”
Mitchell, 26, was born with a genetic disorder that she said caused significant breakdown of the soft tissues in her body and corneal scarring that left her with about 20/1,000 vision. She is able to see from 20 feet with the same clarity what someone with normal vision is able to see from 1,000 feet.
Mitchell grew up in Tyngsboro, Mass., about 35 miles north of Boston. She attended a camp in New Hampshire for the visually impaired for six years. Then came six years at the camp as a counselor, summers that were immensely satisfying.
“It just felt like a good fit to be working with the kids and especially kids I could relate to so well who were also blind,” Mitchell said. “It’s such a small population. Most of us don’t have other people in our schools who are blind, so we’re like the only ones in our classes that are going through these things.
“So it’s nice to have other people around who have been through it, too. You don’t have to feel bad when you walk into a door or something. You just understand that’s what happens sometimes and are able to laugh about it and not feel bad about it. So I really loved that experience and having that opportunity. I really wanted to be able to do something like that.”
Yearning for a new and different college experience after living her whole life in Tyngsboro, Mitchell went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and graduated in May 2014 with a degree in environmental engineering. At CU, Mitchell said she heard of Anchor Center from a couple of friends who went to its preschool.
A month after graduation, Mitchell sent her résumé to Anchor, which had no positions posted. A member of Anchor’s administrative staff called her in August. Mitchell went for an interview and said she was hired the next day.
In addition to her role as a teaching assistant on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the preschool, Mitchell coordinates the sibling program on Monday and Wednesday during the infants and toddlers programs that run for one-and-a-half hours on those mornings and afternoons. While parents, grandparents or caregivers are in the program with their infant or toddler, Mitchell plans activities for siblings, who can be as old as 5 or 6 and flock to her.
“She has this line where she says, ‘Best day ever,’” said speech/language pathologist Zoe Morgese, who has been at Anchor for 16 years. “No matter what is coming up, it’s going to be the best day ever. I wish I had that in my life’s attitude. We’ll say that to each other sometimes, and I think that describes a lot of Kelly’s strengths.”
Mitchell has applied to the University of Northern Colorado and Portland State University programs to become a TSVI (teacher of students with visual impairment). She said it would take about two years to complete the master’s degree requirements, and most of the work can be done online. As a TSVI, Mitchell would be a full teacher and could lead a classroom and be able to do more to support the children at Anchor Center and their families and “help them get all the opportunities and tools they need to be the best they can be in their lives.”
Best day ever. Best they can be. There is a pattern here, an outlook, really, that helps explain not only how Mitchell has found such a rewarding niche at Anchor but also how she has kept striving.
“This is what I’ve had for my whole life, and this is normal for me,” she said. “People tell me all the time that I’m strong or that I’m brave or that I’m an inspiration and all that. But really for me, it’s just my life and what I’ve been given. And I’m going to make the best of what I’ve got.
“It’s hard sometimes. It’s scary sometimes. It’s awesome sometimes. It’s rewarding sometimes. But at the end of the day, it’s what I’ve got, and I’m going to make the best of it.”