Jeff Balek has never actually seen a book – but that hasn’t stopped the blind man from teaching struggling kids how to read.
Growing up learning braille, “I felt pretty empowered thanks to teachers and my family,” he tells PEOPLE. “Teachers were very supportive of me, working with me through high school on my braille and computer skills,” he says.
So thankful is Balek, 34, to the people that taught him, that when his sister forwarded him an e-mail about volunteering for the Y Readers program at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte in North Carolina two years ago, he signed right up.
“I was really excited to help these kids,” he says of joining the after-school program, which aims to boost literacy among first, second and third grade children who are reading below grade level.
“They need help, and I’ve always been into reading – it’s really rewarding,” he says.
Balek uses twin vision books to read along with the children, reading a page in braille then listening to them read the next in print.
“They’re reading the same thing I’m reading, so I can help them with sounding out or spelling a word,” he explains.
Naturally curious, “kids ask me questions about my blindness – how I became blind, the challenges I had to overcome,” Balek says.
“They put a lot of confidence in me reading braille; and I think for them, [learning some] braille gives them confidence, too,” he says.
The kids like him, too.
“He’s so unique,” says Michael DeVaul, senior vice president of organizational advancement at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.
“We hear from a lot of kids about how ‘cool’ he is,” he says. “And he really has a passion for kids, and a passion for reading. I think parents who have met him know that.
He also seems to be the most popular volunteer at the YMCA.
“He doesn’t know this, but he usually gets moved around a lot because he’s so good at what he does,” DeVaul adds.
“Most volunteers see two kids in an hour, but Jeff sees four to five because kids want to touch his books, learn braille,” he says. “It’s beyond words – it really cements the concept of reading comprehension, which is what we’re after.”
Though Balek is humble about his contributions – “I’m just glad I got chosen to participate,” he demurs – DeVaul contends he’s brought more to the table than he’ll ever know.
“He’s extraordinary in general,” he says. “But it goes beyond reading, to this life lesson of pushing through challenges and being resilient. It’s powerful.”
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