2018-01-31 / Home

Blind JCC kindergarten volunteer teaches students more than letters

Paul Bailey works with Max Baeuerle in the kindergarten class at the Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center at the Katz JCC.Paul Bailey works with Max Baeuerle in the kindergarten class at the Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center at the Katz JCC. By JAYNE JACOVA FELD

Voice staff

Before she started kindergarten, six-year-old Isabelle Kushnir had never met anyone who was blind, or really gave much thought to what life would be like without the ability to see.

That has changed now that Paul Bailey helps out regularly in the Lions classroom at the Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center. Through “Mr. Paul,” she has learned that vision can be gained in many ways.

Blind since suffering a traumatic head injury from a rock climbing accident eight years ago, Bailey, 34, assists head teacher Karen Cohen during Writer’s Workshop on Tuesday mornings. He typically steps in after Cohen teaches a new letter or concept by providing the children a hands-on experience tied to the lesson. He always makes it fun, Isabelle said.

On a recent visit, she jumped from the circle-time carpet when Mr. Paul called her to his table to practice “C” and “G.”

“Isabelle, are you ready to have some fun?” he asked.

“Very ready,” responded the girl with a big smile.

The two took turns using their index fingers to trace Cs on a wooden tile that had the letter imprinted in both Braille and English. Next, he asked her to draw the letter with her finger in a sandbox.

In a flash, Isabelle had produced a perfect C so they moved on to the trickier lower case G. She nailed it as well.

“He’s the only person I get to do sand with,” Isabelle explained. “He’s really good at it and other things.”

As Isabelle moved on to her next activity, Bailey scrolled down his class list, which had the students’ names written in Braille. He used his fingers to read the next name: Max Baeuerle.

“Max, come on down; you’re next,” he said.

Like Isabelle, Max leaped from the carpet for his one-on-one time with Mr. Paul.

A 2006 graduate of Warren Wilson College, Bailey was an avid rock climber who had an ornithology research job studying migrating birds and also worked for Outward Bound in Washington State when his life changed in a flash. While on a climbing vacation with friends in Australia, he fell off a cliff face some 40 feet above ground. His protection ropes suddenly dislodged, causing him to fall backwards. Although the ropes still attached to the cliff face prevented him from plummeting to the ground, and likely death, he shattered both wrists trying to protect his face and sustained severe head injuries.

“Basically it was just terrible luck,” said Bailey.

The accident occurred on Oct. 20, 2009, although Bailey has no memories of the actual fall or of anything at all until early January 2010. Doctors in Australia put him in an induced coma that lasted three weeks. He had numerous surgeries for his head and wrists before he was finally released and able to fly home on March 17, 2010.

It’s been a long recovery for him. Now living back in Marlton with his parents, Bailey is well on his way to independence. He has learned to do his own cooking and grocery shopping and is working with the Commission for the Blind to perfect his Braille.

This summer, his job coach, Lois Forman, helped arrange for him to volunteer in the nature program at the JCC Early Childhood Camp in Cherry Hill. It was such a great fit, said Cohen, noting that he is very gentle and patient with the children. Bailey was so excited when Cohen asked him to work with her class throughout the school year, and he came the very first day of class, she said.

“He has made a great impact in my classroom,” said Cohen. “My children understand that it is okay to be different, and to help someone when they are in need.”

Although before the accident he worked regularly with children, Bailey admitted he was nervous at first to volunteer at the JCC, unsure of how the kids would react to him. However, it has worked out so well that his Tuesday visits are the highlight of the week.

“I’ve really learned through this,” he said. “With the help of Karen, it’s been great. My communication skills have gotten better and I’m figuring out different ways to work with kids without my sight. I get a really good response from them.”

Max Baeuerle could not agree more.

“I love working with Mr. Paul,” he said. “I like how his jokes are really funny and he builds things that are really tall.”

The experience has been so great that Bailey is now working on finding a job that involves working with young children.

“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “I slept about 16 hours a day in the beginning, now I’m actually working on getting a job. Things are looking up for me.” 

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