Posts tagged with "tools"

Classroom Champions

by Lex Gillette

Six years ago I received an email telling me about a mentoring program. Classroom Champions is a nonprofit organization where athlete mentors are paired with students of underserved schools across the nation. The mentors are responsible for helping the kids learn about pertinent life skills inside and outside the classroom.

At the time, I was training for the Rio Paralympic Games. Although I thought the program sounded interesting, I didn’t think I would have enough time to devote to it. So, I put it to the back of my mind.

Several months later, I received a tweet from Steve Messler. For those of you who don’t know, Steve Messler is a Gold Medal bobsledder. He was a pusher on Team USA’s four-man team that won in Vancouver in 2010.

Steve wanted to set up a phone call. During that call, I learned that Steve was the CEO and President of Classroom Champions, and he was very interested in getting me involved.

While we were speaking, I thought back to the initial email. Emails are often impersonal and just don’t have the same kick that an actual conversation does. I heard the fervor in Steve’s voice, how passionate he was. He and his sister, Dr. Leigh Mesler Parise, founded Classroom Champions and have grown it into an international organization affecting change in classrooms and donating needed technology. He is a strong advocate for the power of sport to make the world a better place.

During our phone call, he said, “You know what, Lex? I really would love for you to be a part of this program. I think that you have a lot to offer the children we serve. I think that you would also get a lot from the program as well. I just feel like you would be a great asset to our team, and we really want to go into schools to help kids to dream big. We want them to see that they matter. We want to enrich their lives and put them in a position where they can go out into the world, they can flourish, and they could be the best versions of themselves.”

He’s the head of this great organization and his passion was, and is, infectious. By the end of the conversation I found myself saying, “You know what? I would love to be a part of the program.”

The Program

Classroom Champions is a year-long program. Each month is dedicated to one skill. For example, every September, we have our goal setting month. We want to start those kids off learning about short-term and long-term goals. Oftentimes in life, goal setting is the trampoline that bounces us up to the next level. From there, we cover subjects like diversity, community, perseverance, teamwork, courage, friendship, and healthy living. We end the year with, “We are champions.”

For example, when we talk about goal setting, I tell my kids about short-term goals and long-term goals. At the end of the video, I say to them, “All right, guys, I want you to write down what your long-term goal is for the school year. Then I want you to write down three short-term goals that you can achieve along the way that will ultimately help you accomplish your long-term goal.”

As part of the program, they either write down their answers or they record videos. As a blind mentor, I love the videos. I’m able to listen to what the kids are saying. Being able to actually hear my students throughout the year helps me out a lot because it enables me to hear their vocal variety, their vocal inflection, how they speak, and the words they say. For me, having that vocal feedback builds an image of who my kids are.

Since the program is virtual, I have a lot of reach throughout the country. I’m located in San Diego, California, but I have had classrooms in Seymour, Indiana; Camden, New Jersey; Phoenix, Arizona; and even right up the road in Los Angeles. I contribute the videos monthly, but I also do a live chat with my kids once during the fall and once during the spring.

2014 was my first year with Classroom Champions, and I’ve been totally locked in ever since. To say that the program is near and dear to my heart is an understatement. When I began to lose my sight when I was eight years old, I totally remember how important it was, how crucial and critical it was to have a mentor.

Nothing comes close to the direction you receive when someone is consistently there and is dedicated to helping you along. You know you have someone in your corner, someone who is going to support you, someone who will take you under their wing, and they’re not going to allow anything to happen to you that would have a negative impact.

I feel that same responsibility to the students I mentor in Classroom Champions. I don’t want anything to happen to these kids. I don’t want them to fall by the wayside. I don’t want them to fall through the cracks.

What I do want is for them to be equipped with absolutely everything I can possibly provide. I want them to go confidently into the world. I want them to realize how amazing they can be in their communities and in their lives.

My First Year Highlight

During healthy living month, which is typically during the month of April, there is a contest. During this contest, specific classes are nominated and the ones that are chosen will get in-class visits from their mentors. That’s an exciting time of the year, and I love that opportunity to go and visit one of my classrooms from the year.

When you work with students for an entire year, you learn a lot about them. You don’t just learn who they are inside the classroom. You learn who they are on the field of play, and they tell you about their families.

They tell you so much information, that visiting them in person feels like visiting a good friend. It brings that relationship full circle. You can’t help but want to see them succeed. You want to see them go out and do awesome things.

During the 2014-15 school year, I mentored Mrs. Jennifer Regruth’s class in Seymour, Indiana. (Shout out to my kids at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School! Although, they’ve probably moved on to middle or high school by now.) Mrs. Regruth’s class won the contest to have me visit them at the end of the school year.

Classroom Champions scheduled all my travel. They made sure I was able to get there safely. But when Mrs. Regruth picked me up from the airport on that day in 2015, I didn’t realize how impactful that day would be.

Before we even got to the school, they had a firetruck pick me up. I arrived at Brown Elementary with the horn blaring and the siren wailing. The kids were outside the school, and they were yelling, “We want Lex. We want Lex. We want Lex.”

At that particular moment, I understood not only how much of an impact I could make, but how much more of an impact that the kids had on me. After more cheering and a ride up and down in the fire engine’s ladder, I made it inside.

And as they have done in American elementary schools since the founding of the United States, we did the Pledge of Allegiance. I was petrified when I heard we were going to do the Pledge, and I was totally sure I would screw up the words. Fortunately, after saying the Pledge for so many years in elementary school, I found it’s seared into my memory. I even remembered ‘indivisible.’

One of the kids from my class, named Faithe, was well beyond her years. Some of the things that she wrote and said were so eloquent and profound. I would just marvel, “Are you sure you’re really 11 years old?” Faithe led the morning announcements for the school. She had a special write-up for me specifically, introducing me to the rest of the school.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the mayor came to the school and read an official proclamation naming May 18th of 2015 ‘Lex Gillette Day.’ in Seymour, Indiana.

From that point forward, it was a day full of major fun. We played tee ball, basketball, and kickball. We did an in-person Q&A where I got to answer a lot of the questions the kids weren’t able to ask throughout the year.

Mrs. Regruth’s class and I were in close contact during the year. Oftentimes during the week, they would send me a question of the day or a question of the week. I would respond to them on Twitter and let them know, “Yeah, I use an iPhone. I have a computer.” I even answered one of their questions about what I remember seeing before I was blind, “Yeah, I remember how to write my name with a pen and pencil.”

One of the best things about kids, is their lack of filters. They had genuine questions not just about my athletics, but how I saw the world without sight. They asked if I had pets or what my favorite foods were. It was the little things that taught us about each other and allowed our relationships to grow that year.

Oh, and the letters! Mrs. Regruth and her class had all written letters to me and had them transcribed into braille. It was absolutely amazing to feel their words and curiosity for myself.

They were very smart kids. Prior to us really getting to know each other, Mrs. Regruth asked the kids what they thought blind people were like. Questions like: How do blind people live their lives? How do they get around? What do you think about blind people? What is your perception of people who are blind?

Many of their responses were very much from the view of someone losing their sight. “Blind people probably feel alone. They probably live in darkness. They’re probably scared.”

Now in their letters and during my visit, I marveled at how drastically their responses had changed:

    Damen: “When I think of a blind person now, I think of Lex-how he set his goals and he is trying to reach them.”
    Brandon: “I don’t feel that scared if I went blind, because, like Lex said, ‘Blindness just might be another way to see.'”
    Daetona: “I have learned a good lesson about don’t judge people by how they look or why they look like it.”
    Breanna: “…and you don’t worry about what something really looks like-you judge by heart…”
    Isaac: “Blind people can do whatever they choose to do.”
    Katya: “I don’t think you can be blind. You see right through a person- who they are.”
    Aiden: “NEVER judge a book by its cover. I HATE when people are labeled, so I think blind people are the same of me or anyone else. Having Lex made me change my mind about people.”
    Elanis: “There is nothing different about blind people except they can’t see-they can do everything we can do.”
    Rylin: “I think even though Lex is blind, he can actually see with his mind.”
    Savannah: “Now I’m not so sorry anymore. I can’t believe what I can learn from blind people.”
    Brooke: “I learned when you are blind, you can still get around, you just have different tools!”

I still remember very clearly that Faithe had written something that, for her age, was very masterful. She said, “At the end of the day, if you can see from your heart and feel from your heart, you can do anything! Why? Well, the heart is the most powerful thing because without a heart, how can you love, and love is the biggest thing in the world.”

I think that, as individuals and as people, we’ve totally strayed away from that concept of seeing with our hearts. With a world that can have so much hatred, so much wrongdoing, and so much craziness, I think love often escapes us. Thank you, Faithe.

The day I spent in Seymour, Indiana with Mrs. Regruth’s class, was a day of no limitations, no boundaries. Nobody said, “You look like this, or you look like that.” There was no discrimination. There was none of that.

We were just all human beings having a good time, enjoying each other, understanding each other, and learning from each other. It was a culmination of open discussions about the skills needed to live our best lives. It was a celebration of what can happen when you genuinely want to learn about somebody, when you genuinely want to help someone. It was the realization that we’re all here viewing the world with our different perspectives, and when we put them all together, we’re all able to see more.

That’s what those kids did for me in my first year with Classroom Champions. They showed me something that I couldn’t see myself. They probably didn’t even realize how much they taught me. They cemented in me a value I carry on in all my speeches, my interviews, and my relationships…

Together, we can teach people to see.
___________

Lex Gillette is a professional keynote speaker, 4x Paralympic Medalist, and 3x Long Jump World Champion who is currently training to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He has been wowing audiences of all sizes with his athletic gift since 2004, and he has been inspiring audiences on the corporate stage since 2013. His ultimate goal is to teach others to look past their current reality and challenge them to see further than they ever thought possible.


Photo credits: Classroom photo by Lex Gillette; Lex B&W photo by Alex Ingram – ArtIsBeing

My Vegas Adventure

by Lex Gillette

In June of 2017, I competed in the National Championships in Los Angeles at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. That was the qualifying competition for the World Championships which would be held in London.

I thought I was going to have a stellar performance, but it turned out to not be a great day. I didn’t jump as far as I wanted to. After that competition, I felt like I was in question. I didn’t feel confident and was worried whether or not my performance would be good enough to get me on the world championships team that would be headed to London a month later.

Long story short, I just needed to get out of town, clear my head; just get my mind off competition and track and field.

Thankfully, I did have a trip scheduled to Las Vegas. One of my friends was celebrating his 25th birthday. After competing so horribly in L.A., I needed a trip, and Vegas was the answer. (And no, it was nothing like the movie “The Hangover.”)

The Vegas Quest

This was the first time that my friend had been to Vegas. It was him and a couple of his fraternity brothers and me, and I was the only one who had been to Vegas before. So, they were taking it all in, all the lights and all the sounds and smells. It was destined to be a great time.

We got some food. We chilled out. Later on that evening, we decided to get dressed up, go out on the Strip, and walk around for a bit. We walked into the Bellagio, and these guys wanted to go into some of the designer stores there: Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton. While we’re in the Louis Vuitton store, I found a backpack.

Now, I’m fascinated with backpacks. I love them. I think a lot of it is because as someone who’s blind, I love to have my hands free. It allows me to walk around and use my hands and use my cane.

And this is no ordinary backpack. It’s Louis Vuitton. It’s made from gorgeous leather, and I’m touching these backpacks and feeling the straps and feeling the pockets and just imagining all of the things that I could put in there. I could easily take a weekend trip and perfectly pack a Louis Vuitton backpack, take it with me and be a stylish dude, the most stylish guy wherever I’m going.

My friends had been asking about and marveling about the prices all night. Typically, I don’t ask for a price unless I’m really interested. So, I asked. The associate told me and I was like, “Alright. Well, let’s get out of here.” There was no way in the world I was going to pay that much money for a backpack

We ditched the shops and hit the Strip, walking around, seeing the sights, and playing a little blackjack. That was fun, and I won a few dollars. I actually won a couple hundred bucks. So, that’s always nice. Thinking I can justify some more food or even more blackjack.

We get back to our hotel, and my friends’ flights leave the following morning around 9:00. My flight wasn’t scheduled until the next afternoon around 2:00. They got up and left for the airport, and I’m there alone.

Alone with a couple hundred dollars of blackjack winnings, five hours, and a very distinct, tactile memory of Louis Vuitton leather.

To be continued….

The Cane

Let’s back up a little bit. When I was a kid, and I lost my sight, I had an orientation and mobility specialist who taught me to use a cane. He taught me all the techniques I would need to navigate and explore the world.

Now, as an adult, I talk a lot about how challenging it was for me to get out of my own way and actually use the cane. In my head, I was thinking, “A cane? I’m not 70 years old. I’m not looking for my AARP card or my Social Security check. I don’t need a cane!” When, in actuality, the cane was the very thing that helped me gain more independence.

I’m about 6’2”. My cane comes up to my chest. It’s long and tall, but it lets me know what’s in my path. I can tell when I need to step down off a curb or navigate stairs. I can feel if I’m about to walk onto grass or gravel. It gives me so much information.

When I got to the point where I was all right with the cane, and I really started to use it, I realized the cane had so much power. For me, it became a symbol of freedom. It was independence.

It gave me the autonomy to walk around my school, then my neighborhood, then all around Raleigh, North Carolina, and eventually down the crowded Las Vegas strip.

The Quest Continues

I was at the hotel trying to figure out what my next move was going to be. At first, I was just going to walk around on the strip, but I got into this mental space where I could not get the previous day’s competition out of my mind. I could not push back the thoughts about how poorly I competed.

I thought to myself, “Man, you could use some retail therapy.” For those of you who have been to Las Vegas and won a little bit of money, you know there’s something encouraging about having Vegas’ money in your wallet. Sometimes it prompts you to buy something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy.

I remembered that backpack at the Louis Vuitton store, how nice it felt. My friends had told me it was mostly blue but had some red and white on it too. Being a Paralympic athlete for Team U.S.A., that resonated with me.

I thought, “Man, that would look really nice on my slender frame.” So, I get it in my head that I’m going to get from my hotel to the Bellagio, to that Louis Vuitton store, and I’m going to walk it.

But even with my cane being a fantastic tool, I needed more than simple directions from the concierge to get there. There’s this company that I work with called Aira. What they do is connect blind and visually impaired users to human agents via there phones, usually with a pair of smart glasses. This way the agents can see where the user is and help direct them to where they need to go.

I didn’t have my glasses with me (lesson learned: take your glasses to a new city), so when I connected with Connie via my Aira app she had to direct me by viewing my surrounding through the camera on my phone. She was great! She mapped out the route via computer and told me how long it should take to get there. Louis Vuitton, here I come!

Connie helped me right out the door, through the hotel and out onto the Las Vegas strip….in early June. It was hot. I mean, one-step-below-hell hot. But Connie had my back, and we were off.

My cane kept me out of immediate trouble, but there were other things that Connie had to help with. My phone camera wasn’t quite as efficient as wearing the smart glasses. There can be some issues with clarity and depth-perception for the Aira agent, but we were doing pretty well…until the escalators.

I’ll just say that going up the down escalator was not a workout I was fully prepared for that day. A few more little glitches here and there, but I got to the Bellagio unscathed. Then, a new obstacle presented itself. I doubt there are few things as comical as watching a blind man negotiate a revolving door.

I stood there, and I’m listening and listening as it makes the ‘whroom, whroom, whroom’ sound. Every time it made that noise, I knew that’s probably the opening I needed. I finally got up the courage to go. After that next ‘whroom,’ I stepped in there. I mistimed it and got squished in between the door and the wall a little bit, but I was able to weasel myself out of that. I pushed until I felt the air conditioning on the other side, and I quickly stepped out. Now, I’m inside the Bellagio Hotel. Bingo!

Connie’s still there with me, but my cell phone signal wasn’t very strong. She told me she saw the store, directed me there, and I let her go. I walked in, cane in hand. An attendant immediately came to me, and I told her I knew exactly what I came in here to get. She got the backpack for me. I felt it and checked it out. Yes, this was it.

She told me the price. I couldn’t completely believe I was doing it. I knew that I was going to have to starve myself for two months, but I wanted that backpack. So, I swiped my card and walked out of the Louis Vuitton store with my brand new backpack.

Before I could even get to the airport, there were more issues that came up. I didn’t know there was a designated rideshare area at the hotel. I didn’t use any fancy apps to find that information. I relied on asking the people around me, but my first ride abandoned me before I could find them.

Now I had no ride, and I’m thinking about my flight. My departure was fast approaching. I was getting nervous about making it to the airport on time. The thrill of navigating Vegas by myself and buying the backpack was pretty overwhelming, and it’s the thing I will always remember most about that day. But when I finally got to the airport and found out I had missed my flight, I was hot, tired, and just plain ready to go home.

But I had my Louis Vuitton backpack!

The Tools

Thinking back on my Vegas Quest, I think we all benefit from different tools. We all have canes. We have Aira or other resources that allow us our freedom and independence. But we sometimes just don’t recognize them as such.

We live in a world where people are constantly on their cell phones. Whether it’s on social media, talking, texting, or whatever, but your phone is a cane too. It’s a device that can lead you to new paths or even give you a straighter path to your destination. It can awaken you to new possibilities and totally shatter the barriers and limitations that you might have.

Every time you’re at school or work, and you have a pen in your hand or a keyboard on your desk, that’s a cane. That’s freedom. That’s independent achievement. If you write stories, dissertations, song lyrics, or even a business plan, that’s you breaking down barriers. You just have to view it as such.

Grab your cane and go. Grab whatever it is and go, because that’s going to be that one thing that helps you move forward. It’s going to help you see more than you ever thought you could.

You may have books in your room or in your classroom that you have never read. Read those. Those could be your cane. They could be the one thing that creates that path to help you navigate through your obstacles.

There’s so much knowledge, so much wisdom out there. We fail to use it because we look at those things the same way I looked at my cane when I was first introduced to it as an eight-year-old. “I don’t need this. I can figure it out on my own. I’m not old. I don’t look cool with this. This just isn’t me.”

When we have that mindset, we gyp ourselves. We rob ourselves of opportunities, rob ourselves of blessings, rob ourselves of possibilities, rob ourselves of broken barriers, rob ourselves of furthering our visions and shattering our limitations.

It could have been easy to surrender to those excuses and never use that cane. But when I made the decision to see it for what it was, I was able to travel, to broaden my world and my experiences. It’s funny that being blind and using this cane has helped me see so much of this world in such an intimate way.

I think it’s the same for a lot of us. We have phones. We have pens. We have books. We have computers. We have each other.

Grab your cane and go. Grab your cane and go.

___________

Lex Gillette is a professional keynote speaker, 4x Paralympic Medalist, and 3x Long Jump World Champion who is currently training to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He has been wowing audiences of all sizes with his athletic gift since 2004, and he has been inspiring audiences on the corporate stage since 2013. His ultimate goal is to teach others to look past their current reality and challenge them to see further than they ever thought possible.


Photo credits: Rough Landing photo by Joe Kusumoto; Lex Feet & Cane photo by Joris Debeij, Las Vegas Sign photo by tookapic on Pixabay.