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Former Marine studying to help rehab veterans

November 29, 2011
Nathan LaForte

Nathan LaForte

Nathan LaForte served eight years in active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps and one year in the reserves, working as a mechanic and a journalist.

Other Marines showed him those ropes.

“They always had me do the on-the-job training,” says LaForte, who received his undergraduate degree in psychology from NIU in May of 2011, “which really prepared me to go one-on-one with someone.”

Now LaForte is preparing to continue one-on-one work with members of the military, although this time it’s with veterans.

He’s one of only five graduate students selected to enroll in an innovative program in the NIU College of Education that prepares them to help veterans regain the independence and self-sufficiency they had before losing their sight.

The students are earning master’s degrees in special education with an emphasis on blind rehabilitation and orientation mobility. Congress awarded funding for the program to NIU shortly after the university received national recognition as a veteran-friendly campus.

Gaylen Kapperman and his dog, Judd

Gaylen Kapperman and his dog, Judd

Gaylen Kapperman, professor and coordinator of the Visual Disabilities Program in the College of Education, says the program focuses on the rehabilitation of soldiers who return sightless from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Losing one’s sight can be devastating for many people, he says, and for soldiers it can be even more so.

“It is seen by many to be one of the most disastrous things that can happen to a human being,” Kapperman says. “For our nation’s soldiers, who are trained to be strong and self-sufficient, it is a catastrophic, life-changing event. We are here to help these individuals regain as much of their former lives as possible.”

Adjusting to life after losing one’s sight is as much psychological as it is physical, and the program has been carefully designed to prepare students for this challenge.

In part, NIU’s program teaches participants how to use – and then teach others to use – tools that can re-socialize the visually impaired with the everyday world. These tools include Braille computers and electronic devices, such as GPS systems for the blind.

The program also emphasizes the re-learning of everyday tasks; one of these is cooking, which is introduced in a course that Kapperman informally calls “Cooking Without Looking.”

Coupled with traditional classes for blind rehabilitation, the specialized program also offers coursework focusing on the needs of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

LaForte’s journey down this path began when Kapperman visited one of his undergraduate classes to give an informational speech about the new program.

At the time, LaForte’s was preparing to become a social studies teacher; however, the closer he came to reaching his goal, the more anxiety he felt about teaching an entire classroom full of adolescents.

While Kapperman talked about how the program would help rehabilitate veterans who are blind, LaForte recalled how much he enjoyed working one-on-one with people in the military.

He soon realized that this program offered the best of both worlds: he could teach one-on-one while making a huge difference in the quality of life for wounded veterans.

LaForte believes that there are no limits to what individuals who have lost their sight can achieve. He plans to expand their learning experiences beyond the classroom, including “outward bound” types of excursions.

“They may not think they can do these things,” he says, “but they can.”

Kapperman agrees, and says that the role of LaForte and his fellow classmates is crucial in changing the lives of returning veterans.

“Without the training that our students will provide, many of the blinded soldiers would remain dependent and helpless, relying on those around them to help with everyday tasks. The students who graduate from our program will truly transform the lives of every soldier they work with. I can think of nothing more rewarding than helping our vets reclaim their lives.”

The five students take six courses for two semesters and then complete one year of internships.

LaForte often studies into the wee hours of the morning to keep up with the rigorous coursework, but he’s not alone.

“I feel that it has really been a team effort for the faculty to keep us going through our first semester,” he says. “Without faculty members like Dr. Kapperman, Sean Tikkun, Dr. Bill Penrod and many others who answer our frenzied emails and phone calls about course material at all hours of the day, we couldn’t make it.”

LaForte also has found other outlets that help him stay connected on campus.

He is involved in several organizations and activities, including Alpha Phi Omega (APO), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club, Gymnastics Club and UNIV 101 and 201. APO is a national service fraternity where LaForte participates in food drives, fundraisers and auctions to help others.

He also serves as an orientation leader, and is involved with the Military Student Services office.

His many achievement and dedication to education have not gone unnoticed: He received a Kevin D. Knight Leadership Award and was named to Who’s Who on NIU’s campus in 2010.

“You have to commit to a movement or else you will fall,” says LaForte, who credits the Gymnastics Club for helping him learn how to push himself physically and mentally: “I have taken this and applied it to my personal philosophy. If you don’t commit in life, you’ll never know the heights you can reach.”