2016 Leadership Fellows Biographies

Alexander A. Castillo

Ask who I am and the reply will be that I am the son of Dominican immigrants–someone who has struggled in finding their identity as blind, as Dominican, and who has worked to understand how this has made for a unique perspective and life.

In The Dominican Republic, where I lived until third grade, rarely did I recall blindness as an issue. If there was anything atypical about me, it was that I was a very social, mischievous child, and this meant that my claim to independence came at quite an early age. We moved to the states because my parents had found it increasingly costly to travel back and forth from The Island to see my corneal specialist in New York. I went from having everyone know me in my community, to only spending time with family in a Northern Manhattan Neighborhood. New York City had not yet become Disney and M&M stores. You stayed away from street corners, and did not set foot in Brooklyn.

In school, Initially, I was not permitted to participate in gym and other classes because of my vision. This created a strong aversion to identifying as blind, as I didn’t want to appear as a victim, or weak, and worst of all, instilled a tremendous fear of using a cane: a fear which stayed with me until my mid 20’s. However blindness did afford me some opportunities which I would not have otherwise had.

As a student who needed low vision services, the schools I attended, for example, were very diverse, the teachers had good relationships with the students, and I got an opportunity to experience the “big Apple” as I would ride the yellow bus downtown.

My parents also made sure that my brother and I had an eclectic cultural education. There were music lessons, martial arts, and hikes and my father would sit us down and have us listen to Broadway Musicals. My brother and I, thought the marionette scene from the “sound OF Music” was amazing, and didn’t quite get why the neighborhood kids didn’t feel the same. We were Dominican, but the other Dominicans saw us as different. Much of the other people in our community had only come to the States out of financial need.
My parents had come for my health.

Like many, I was the only blind child in our family, and it felt like I was the only blind person in Manhattan. There was no connection to blindness, until I took a martial arts class in my mid 20’s during which A classmate told me: If you ever attend an NFB convention, you’re going to hear so many canes, that the sound will be like heavy rain.” This martial arts class was about the only thing I had ever done that was blindness related and voluntary. He was right. It was a great sound and blindness, for the first time was not a barrier, but a way to connect with others.

The first NFB convention I attended was in Detroit. I met so many students which had the same struggles that I faced, even those feelings of inadequacy, but more importantly, they had so many ways to adapt, self-accommodate, and build and be part of communities in and out of blindness. This really hit home. Along with others, I rebuilt the New York student division and had the privilege of serving as president for two years.

I also received another opportunity. The National Science Foundation was concerned that minority students with disabilities had very little representation in the STEM fields and centralized a program at Hunter College where I attended. I was approached by the program director at a psychology convention and asked to join the program. what caught the program coordinator’s attention besides good academic standing, was my long white cane, which after many years of neglect, I was finally able to confidently hold, and my ability to reach out to Spanish speakers, the ladder, being something which until I began to volunteer as a tech instructor and work with this population, I had not been comfortable doing.

These connections led to more volunteering, close friends, employment opportunities and professional contacts.

Throughout the past 6 years, I have focused on developing a strong background in direct services to individuals with disabilities of marginalized communities. This is in large due to after many years, finally having a strong identification as being Dominican, a New Yorker, and a person who is blind.

Earl Everet

I was born in Washington D.C. in the mid 50’s, and it was discovered pretty early on that I had congenital glaucoma. My family decided it was best for me to stay with relatives in Franklin VA so I could attend the VA School at Hampton for the Deaf and Blind where I learned Braille, Orientation and Mobility and other life skills in addition to an academic curriculum.

Upon graduation I briefly attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond VA as a music education major. Accessibility Services being what they were in the mid 70’s I was unable to obtain my degree and soon left the University. I moved to Norfolk, VA and through VDBI I was able to obtain a job at Old Dominion University in their Housekeeping Department where I stayed for close to 10 years until I developed cataracts which hindered me from successfully fulfilling my duties.

I returned to Franklin for the next few years until I was able to enroll in the Customer Service Program at the VA Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired. Upon completion of the program I interned at the Lillian Vernon Corporation in VA. Beach, VA where I was offered a position.

After the company decided to close up operations in VA Beach I developed an interest in the law and the legal process. I enrolled in J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and received my Associates Degree in Paralegal Studies. I then went back to VA Commonwealth University where I finally was able to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Pre-Law. I am currently seeking employment hopefully in the legal field and am even giving thought to taking the LSAT’s (Law School Admittance Test)) to obtain my Law Degree.

I joined the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, Richmond Chapter in 2008. I was elected Secretary of the Chapter in 2014, and in 2015 I was appointed as Chairman of the newly formed Legislative Committee. I was able to attend my 1st National Convention this past summer as a McDonald Scholarship winner and it was truly an inspiring and enlightening experience. I look forward to this next chapter of my life as a Leadership Fellow and am ready to embrace all the promise and opportunities the future may hold.

Michael Kitchens

My name is Michael David Kitchens, II, and I was born in Portsmouth, VA on September 19, 1976. I have a form of condition known as albinism, which affects pigment in the skin and in the eyes. I have myopia (nearsightedness), light sensitivity and I sunburn very easily.

I graduated from Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, VA in 1994 as an honor graduate. I was included in the 1994 edition of Who’s Who among American High School Students. I then went to college at Tidewater Community College and then ITT Technical Institute to study Computer-Aided Drafting and Design (CADD). I have two Associate degrees in that field. I also graduated from ITT as the class valedictorian. I studied CADD because I first realized I could draw in that manner when I was 9 or 10 years old.

I currently work at the City of Chesapeake, VA Department of Public Works as an Engineering CAD Technician II. I have been there since May 2015.

I am considered low-vision, to the point where I am currently unable to
drive. I first joined the Federation in 2009, because I was inspired by a
former (now deceased) member of the NFB, Mr. Nelson Malbon. When I was a little boy, he helped my mom in getting access to assistance and services
that I needed. Being part of the NFB is my way of giving back and paying
his help forward. And now that I am a Leadership Fellow for 2016, I hope that I can really make a difference.

Domonique Lawless

I moved to Richmond in July, when I started working as an Orientation and Mobility Instructor at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired. I grew up mostly in upstate New York and Nashville Tennessee with a few places in between. I am a graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and after my blindness skills training I obtained my Master’s Degree in teaching blind students and orientation and mobility. I find that living in many places helps me appreciate people from all walks of life and the stories they have to share. It also means that I am slightly culturally confused. I miss corner bakeries where you can get good cannoli, do not like southern sweet tea, and can almost eat my weight in crawfish at a crawfish boil.

In 2000, I was invited to a student seminar at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. That moment forever changed my life. I was connected with other blind students and adults who didn’t let their blindness limit them, and those people became my mentors and friends. I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for sixteen years. During this time, I have served on chapter, state, and national boards. I have also worked as an instructor and mentor for many of our youth programs.

When I’m not working at the center, I spend my time creating new recipes in the kitchen, reading, and crafting. I am excited to be a part of the Virginia affiliate and can’t wait to get to know my new NFBV family.

Sean McMahon

Sean McMahon serves as the treasurer for the Potomac chapter. He has been a member of the Potomac chapter since moving to the D.C area 6 years ago to take a job as a software quality control specialist at the Internal Revenue Service. As a Virginia Fellow, he hopes to help our membership meet their individual accessibility challenges, learn legislative advocacy and spread our great can-do spirit. He enjoys live jazz and has an obsession for watching sports. He lives in Vienna with his Cantankerous cat Magic and girlfriend Sarah who is also an active board member of their chapter.

Christopher O’Meally

My Name is Christopher O’Meally, and I have lived in the Richmond Virginia area all my life, besides my 9 month stay at the Louisiana center for the blind. I am currently pursuing my second degree in business information systems management with a concentration in contract administration, and currently work for the defense contract management agency. In my spare time, I enjoy a bit of computer troubleshooting and repair, running my small data recovery service, trying to convince people not to pay me to build custom gaming computers because it would be entirely easier and cheaper to go to best buy, and long walks on the beach.

In my 10 years in involvement with the National Federation of the Blind, my main focus has been with the students. I have served in every position on the board at least once, and now that I am back in school again, will most likely be running this year. Advocacy is very important to me, and so when people come to ask me questions, I always mention my federation family, as they have shown me much of what I know about my blindness, the rights that our community is entitled to, and even who to contact if I am not sure of what I am being asked.

Onto of that, I am a graduate of guiding eyes, and am currently in the matching process for my second dog, so the equal treatment of handlers and dogs is very near and dear to my heart. People know me as the resident tech guy around the state of Virginia. I enjoy presenting at seminars at various events in and outside of the federation, and even teaching a bit on the side when I have time.

I applied to be a leadership fellow so that our more experienced members and leadership can mold me into the leader that many of my friends and family members always say I am, and so that I can give back to the federation in return. I am not quite sure where my place is, but my goal is simple, and to me, less means more in most situations. I want to make a difference somewhere.

Joe Orozco

Joe Orozco is an intelligence analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On his spare time he runs a small freelance writing business catering to small nonprofits and tech startups. He enjoys reading and writing horror and young adult fiction, hiking, all genre of music, and eclectic foods. Joe was introduced to the Federation in the Texas affiliate and looks forward to making worthwhile contributions to his new home in Virginia.

Robert Parsons

My name is Robert Parsons and I am 27-years old. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, I moved to Richmond, VA in 2012 in hopes of finding work and going back to college. It was in Richmond that I went blind in 2013 by means of a gunshot to the head during a robbery of my house. The attack left me with no vision or light perception and I was left to pick up the pieces of my life and decide what to do with myself. In 2014, I began my time as a student at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired, where I learned, honed, and practiced my skills of blindness in preparation to return to college. It was at the Virginia Rehab Center that I was introduced to the Richmond chapter of the NFBV and became a member. I graduated from the center 5 months later and began attending Reynolds Community College, where I will be graduating in December with an Associate’s Degree in Social Science to begin attending Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia In pursuit of a dual Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and French.

I am extremely active in the Richmond chapter and Virginia affiliate, serving as the first Vice President of the chapter, coordinator of the car donation program, coordinator of the exhibit hall at state convention, and Virginia table at national convention.

Evelyn Valdez

I’d like to introduce myself as a transplant hailing from the Garden State of New Jersey also known as Joe Ruffalo country. I am ecstatic to have been chosen as the distinguished member of such an illustrious class of Virginia Fellows for the 2016-2017 class.

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, there was never a dull moment in the Valdez household, from my brother playing baseball to me competing in JROTC drill team competitions. It was not a farfetched idea that I would be joining the Marine Corps and of course I knew what I was going to do. My MOS (major/area of study) would be Communications in the Marine Corps and I would have Uncle Sam pay for my higher education. Well, it’s all good when one is taken on an alternate route, but the big question was if I was ready for the ride? I went blind at 17 and my military career took a permanent backseat. I decided to become a teacher and so I did, not knowing too much about blindness and all the resources that were available to me at first. I began meeting go-getters like Ms. Ever-lee Hairston and slowly this “ride”
didn’t seem too difficult. What turned it more exciting was when I attended my first national convention as a national scholarship winner in Texas. That was the seal of approval for me, it cemented everything into perspective.

After teaching inclusion in the Hillside school district in NJ for six and a half years, I wanted more.so I went to polish my blindness skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) in Ruston, Louisiana. A change in my career path had been in the works for some time until it was finalized just two months before I graduated from my blindness training at LCB, I was given an employment opportunity at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC.

I have been an active member of the NFB for ten years now, serving as co-founder of the NJ Association of Blind Students, affiliate board member, second vice president of the Greater DC Chapter, and in my present role as recording secretary for the Potomac chapter. I have recently embarked on a cycling phase. I had been on a running phase not too long ago doing the Marine Corps 10-K with an awesome marathon runner as my sighted guide! I am working on becoming a stronger cyclist and feeling good that I have been coached by a famous road racer, Jim Alvord from Pennsylvania.

This ride has Never Felt Better!