EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 26, 2012

'She's an inspiration'

Blind JROTC member is a leader and honors student

By Yadira Betances

---- — LAWRENCE — During a recent half time at a Lawrence High School girls basketball game, Gabryela Nunez did not miss a beat as she stomped her feet, clapped her hands and slapped her thighs, feet and chest as part of the school’s JROTC unarmed stepping presentation.

Born blind, Nunez did it all by listening to student instructor, 1st Lt. Nestor Hernandez, and following the sounds of the footsteps of her fellow JROTC members. Nunez did not need any assistance and team members only had to tell her when to turn right or left.

“Stepping is fun and it gives me something to do,” said Nunez, a freshman in the Humanities, Leadership and Development Academy.

Hernandez admits he was apprehensive when Nunez joined JROTC.

“I didn’t know how to react and how to approach the situation, but she made it easy because of her willingness to learn and the girls wanted to teach her,” said Hernandez, a junior in the Human Leadership Development High School.

“She has made us a better team because she has shown us not to judge a book by its cover, to be more accepting to others and that with patience and perseverance, anything can happen,” Hernandez said.

Earlier this month, the Lawrence Battalion, of which Nunez is part, won the 2012-2013 Governor’s Cup High JROTC for earning the most medals in all of the state-wide competitions throughout the year. Nunez joined the JROTC on the first day of school.

“After she finished the stepping routine, it was so beautiful, I got chocked up,” JROTC Sgt. Major Paul Ronan said.

JROTC Major Kathleen Romano and Sgt. Robert Kujawa lead the program along with Ronan.

“She started off uneven with her left and right side, but was soon doing 10 pushups, which helped her build up her upper body and abs,” Romano said.

“She’s an inspiration to the drill team and HLD. She motivates the kids to be better,” Romano said.

Members of the JROTC are required to do community work and they go to a soup kitchen where Nunez pulls up her sleeves and does dishes.

As part of the JROTC, she practices from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., attends classes until 3 p.m., then practices again from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

When not studying or practicing, she is a typical teenager, talking on the cell phone, being online or listening to music. Among her favorite artists are Michael Jackson and Marron 5.

Nunez does not let her disability prevent her from participating in school activities or delving head on into her school work.

A high honors student, she takes English, pre- Advanced Placement history I, Algebra 1 and biology.

Johanna Estevez, a paraprofessional at the school, is her “one-on-one” who goes to each of Nunez’ teachers to help convert her lessons to Braille and specialized computer programs for the blind.

Denise Dudash is her TVI ( teacher for visually impaired) she works districtwide. She sees her three times a week.

“She’s an inspiration to all of us because of her determination and willingness to do it all,” Estevez said.

Nunez visited Lawrence High while still a student at Parthum School with an orientation mobility teacher to get acquainted with the building.

Recently, Nunez sat in English class using her Braille machine attached to her tablet computer, answering questions teacher Brian Bates gave the class about the book “Animal Farm.”

“She is one of the top writers in the class,” Bates said. “Her analysis of literature is second to none and she is able to analyze literature at a greater lever than what is expected of a ninth grader.”

Bates said Nunez is not afraid to ask questions and participates in class.

“I just like to do well because if I choose a good path, I’ll end up having a good life, if not, I won’t be successful,” Nunez said. In the future, she hopes to be a psychologist to help children cope with life issues.

Life has dealt hard blows to Nunez. She was in the care of the Department of Social Services when Virginia and Eugenio Nunez adopted her at 5 months old. Virginia Nunez was a foster mother for more than 6 years and DSS called her to see if she wanted to adopted Gabryela.

“I’m very happy at how well she has done and how she has excelled in school,” Virginia Nunez said. “She is a normal child around the house, very independent and focused on wanting to become a better person.”

In the Nunez’ household, Gabryela joined Marlene, 27; Carlos, 25; Kristina, 19 and Caroline, 17.

“I think Gaby is great. She’s very generous, she always thinks about others and has a big heart,” her sister Marlene said.

Nunez said she is often asked if she had a wish, would it would be and people expect her to say to regain her sight. She wants world peace.

“I don’t know anything else and if I become sighted, I’d have to learn everything over again. I’m happy the way I am,” Nunez said.