OAKHURST — A college graduation is important to celebrate for any family. Perhaps in this case, there was extra cause for jubilation, as the graduate in question has unquestionably overcome some of life’s challenges with grace and perseverance beyond the usual proportions.
Despite being born blind and having been diagnosed early on with autism, Oakhurst native Brittany Donley graduated from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma on Sunday, May 5, cum laude, with a BA in International Language and a minor in music.
No one close to her is surprised at this progress — they’ve been proudly witnessing Brittany’s astonishing abilities since the day she came into the world.
“You could say it has been a difficult path, but Brittany has always been an active person with a desire to learn and figure out life,” Brittany’s mom Helen Dooley recalls. “I always tried to let her. So, I am not surprised to see her succeed, I am simply filled with joy at this new stage she has reached in her life. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
The day Brittany was born it was understandably a shock, her mom confides, to learn that she was blind.
“Her eyes had not formed in the womb. The condition is called anophthalmia. From day one, though, she proved she was strong — lifting her head immediately after birth — which I was told she wouldn’t do because of her blindness.”
Helen Dooley was just a teenager at the time her daughter was born. Dooley was a sophomore at Yosemite Unified School District’s independent Evergreen High School in Oakhurst. Today, she still recalls that Brittany was already walking by the time she was ten months old.
Evergreen’s lead teacher Mary Beth Harrison remembers the family very fondly.
“As teachers we often pour so much more than knowledge into our students,” says Harrison. “We become a trusted adult in their lives that they turn to in times of crisis. This is especially true with teen parents. At Evergreen, we connected Helen with social services and they sent therapists out to work with Brittany from birth.”
As she grew, baby Brittany met and exceeded her growth and developmental milestones until she was about three, Dooley says, when it became apparent that Brittany’s communication was not what they expected.
“Brittany could speak perfectly and, at just four years old, could spell over fifty words including microwave. But she did not communicate with anyone and would say words and sentences repetitively. Over the next few years I was able to have her assessed at the California School for the Blind in Fremont, where it was agreed that Brittany was autistic as well.”
Brittany started preschool at Oakhurst Elementary and studied there through 5th grade, says her mom, who adds that her child’s musical abilities began to be apparent as she studied with Shirley Lay in the Oakhurst Elementary School music program.
Brittany has always enjoyed music, Helen notes.
“Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and all other classical favorites, as well as current musical genres including pop or hip hop. However, classical has always been her favorite to listen or play.” And music wasn’t the only thing she was good at, say those who were present back then.
“I remember Brittany progressed so fast in her Braille reading that she won a reading award in elementary school,” recounts Harrison.
For the next couple of years, Helen explains that Brittany was home schooled until being accepted into the California School for the Blind, where she continued to practice her passion.
“Brittany enjoyed playing the flute and she learned the trombone” Helen adds. “Her music is one of her greatest enjoyments.”
Moving with the family to Oklahoma in 2009, Brittany completed her high school education from the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee. Immediately following she began studying at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Her major was International Language with a minor in music. Her primary language of study was Spanish, and German was another.
“She would like to continue learning other languages as well, so I don’t think she’s done yet.”
Brittany and her grandma will be returning this year sometime for a vacation to the mountain area. Overall, her plans are to find a job, preferably to do with translation, and continue living in the Oklahoma area where the family has now lived for 10 years.
“Watching Brittany grow and mature has probably helped me grow and mature into the person I am today,” says Dooley, reflecting on the road they’ve traveled.
“We kind of grew up together. We played together, laughed together, and sometimes cried. I have learned to figure things out and adapt. I am 41 today and for almost 25 years I have grown up with this other person who continues to show me that there is truly no limitations for a person who is blind.”
Dooley has willingly shared updates on their progress, and it’s been a joy for her early mentor Mary Beth Harrison to learn of the family’s progress today, even though they’re far away.
“As we help these students navigate turbulent times and finally go on to become high school graduates, strong and compassionate parents, and successful community members, it can be hard to kick them out of the nest and hope their wings are strong enough,” Harrison shares.
“We always wonder how they are doing. Through social media it is now so much easier to stay in touch and be a part of their big moments in adult life. I love hearing from former students, especially in cases like this where the seeds planted so long ago have grown so beautifully.”