Constable: Blindness, disabilities no obstacle to computer use at Wheaton nonprofit
By Burt Constable
If they were those kind of mothers at that kind of gathering, Ann Byrne and Kimberly Delaney could be trying to outdo each other with tales about their remarkable lives, successful computer-programming careers and high-achieving children. Instead, they are just two blind women hard at work inside Donka, the Wheaton-based, not-for-profit agency that provides computer training and job services to people with physical, visual and learning disabilities.
"I came to Donka in order to get employed," says Delaney, 54, an Elmhurst mother of four whose vision problems began at age 3 in her war-torn native home of Vietnam. "My whole village was massacred and I was the sole survivor. American soldiers found me."
She was wounded and lost all vision in one eye, was treated in the United States and eventually was adopted by an American family. Delaney lost the remaining vision in her other eye in 2010 after she was diagnosed with leukemia, which might have been caused by her exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
Under the guidance of Byrne, a Donka computer instructor and assistive technology trainer whose congenital glaucoma has left her blind since birth, Delaney is mastering Microsoft Windows and an Excel spreadsheet through use of the assistive technology JAWS software that provides verbal descriptions of her actions.
"They really wanted to name it JAWS," quips Byrne, noting the awkward acronym stands for Job Access With Speech. But that JAWS software is essential for computer users who can't see.
"When a blind person uses the computer, there isn't a way to use the mouse," says Byrne, a Phi Beta Kappa honor student who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before starting her professional career in 1980 as a computer programmer for ComEd. Some students benefit from large, high-contrast keyboards, magnifiers, joysticks and other devices.
Delaney worked as a computer programmer for Discover Card and Quaker Oats, and is expanding her skills.
"Nobody knows your potential," Byrne says. "You have to work for it. Here at Donka, we give our students tools."
Donka began in 1987 when founder Don Van Haveren, who died in 1993, wanted to do more than merely visit people in the DuPage County Convalescent Center in Wheaton. "He asked if he could bring a computer and start to teach people computers," remembers 88-year-old Joyce Van Der Molen, who knew Van Haveren through the Wheaton Christian Reformed Church. Van Haveren chose the name Donka because it means "thank you" in Dutch, and he wanted to thank people.
"I'm still so convinced this does so much for their lives," say Van Der Molen, a former president of the Donka board and a vital supporter of Donka during the decades that have seen more than 900 students graduate.
"We had four graduates that first year and now we have between 30 to 35 graduates a year," says Leanne Vos, executive director of Donka, which features one-on-one training of 70 to 150 hours for each student. The school also trains staff and faculty from Benedictine University, Northern Illinois University and the College of DuPage.
"Every January, I walk to my desk and say, 'We need $400,000,'" Vos says. The bulk of that annual budget comes from fundraising, donations to donkainc.org, successful grant applications and some assistance from the state's Division of Rehabilitation Services. "Donka is a unique program," Vos says. "It's opening doors for new opportunities."
Suffering vision problems since birth, Julie Chapel of Glen Ellyn says her Donka training helped her go back to the College of DuPage, get the training she needed, and land a job as a medical receptionist.
"I was able to get straight A's because I was able to see for the first time," says Chapel, 52, who says Donka taught her how to use adaptive software and other devices. "Not only did I have the resources to see better, I had the confidence. They were absolutely wonderful."
Not everyone who takes advantage of Donka is looking for a job.
"I shop all the time and go on Facebook and do my email and communicate with my children," says Amy Bakker, 65, a three-time cancer survivor who has lived at the convalescent center since a stroke four years ago. A retired underwriter for an insurance company, Bakker had worked with computers but needed "a refresher course," she says.
Fellow resident Deborah Emerson Masters, a former special education teacher and paralegal, says she plays bridge online thanks to instructor Linda Yurka and others. "They are wonderful," Masters says.
"It's not just the training. It's the meaningful relationships they have," Vos says.
Looking for volunteer hours required to be in the honors program at College of DuPage, Jared Crimmins, 20, of Lombard saw Donka at a college event and volunteered. Noting that it wasn't all that different from the typical story of a college kid helping his parents navigate technology, Crimmins was hooked. After his volunteer work was finished, Donka brought him on as an intern. When that finished, he was back to being a volunteer. He is working toward a degree in computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"A lot of us started as volunteers and we never left," says Sam Moore, a Warrenville resident who works as program manager for Donka. "Our goal is to get our students looking for work the skills they need."
There also is value in simply helping people realize their value, and focus not on limitations, but on potential.
"Attitude is something we struggle against," a smiling Byrne says. "You can think with your eyes closed."