Blind and Nearly Deaf Foreign Exchange Student Inspires Small New York Town: 'I Wanted to Learn About America'
Foreign exchange student Vera Babinszki is open to the rush of new experiences. There are her classes – all of them – taught in English. The responsibility she has as a role model to her two younger host brothers. And the joy of the small stuff, like the fact that bananas taste great on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
As a year-long foreign-exchange student to the United States, the 18-year-old from Hungary embodies confidence and a keen sense of adventure. The fact that she’s blind and nearly deaf is just another dimension of flexibility as she finds her way around her new hometown of Olean, New York, about 75 miles south of Buffalo.
Her presence in Olean is valuable to the community on two levels, says Suzana Bartimole, Vera’s host mother. Suzana is a high school English teacher and a volunteer with Youth For Understanding, the Washington, D.C.-based exchange organization that in late August brought Vera to the U.S.
“Our city isn’t one that’s especially diverse, so the perspectives she brings are important,” Suzana tells PEOPLE. “People are incredibly interested in Vera – not only about her Hungarian culture, but they also are learning from her determination and attitude in overcoming challenges.”
Blind from birth, Vera is used to reaching – not waiting – for elements and experiences that would enrich her life. She decided to become an exchange student, she says, after hearing about a blind friend’s successful exchange, also through YFU. “I started to love English and I decided I wanted to practice it and learn about America,” she tells PEOPLE.
Her story is only somewhat surprising to Michael E. Hill, YFU’s president. “When an organization supports 2,000 students each year, you hear many stories of courage. But Vera’s story is unique in that it’s about pure determination and her desire to prove that students with disabilities are no different than any other young person who wants to make the world their home.”
Vera’s placement with her American family, which includes father John Bartimole and brothers Thomas Baker, 16, and Kellen Baker, 12, came via a circuitous route.
“She was originally to go to a family in Illinois, but for some reason they withdrew their offer,” says John, a health-care association CEO. He and Suzana heard about Vera – “maybe,” he says, “because people knew I’d raised a blind daughter (Christine, now 25) and also because both Suzana and I had had exchange students in the past.” Within nine days of agreeing to host Vera, she landed in Buffalo.
Vera soon discovered that her hearing issues were daunting to her in the classroom, so the Bartimole family created what they call “Team Vera” to help their new family member. “Team Vera” needed to find a way to keep the teen in her school, so the Olean school district found resources to help her navigate as a student, providing advice, support and services to her. YFU is raising funds to pay for a full-time educational aide to accompany Vera to her classes, which include English, biology and chemistry.
The social aspect is a bit more challenging. “I’m trying to create friendships,” she says. “I have a hard time to join conversations, but I can do it in small groups. I’m working on it.” She recently attended a sleepover for other YFU students and stayed up talking until 4 a.m. She also recently expanded her circle at Olean High by making presentations to several classes on life in Hungary, sparking interest about the differences and similarities teens face oceans apart.
At home, her family, like most, has its own systems in place. Every morning on her way to work, Suzana drops off Vera and Thomas at school. Thomas walks Vera inside and helps her get situated for the day, and her aide walks her from class to class.
After school, Vera comes home and chats with the rest of the family about her day. Vera and Thomas share an innate curiosity and an appreciation for scholastic achievement and often talk about Vera’s experience navigating the world as a blind teen. Younger brother Kellen can make his sister laugh by dancing around in front of her and making cartoon-like noises (“He’s really good at it,” says John). Like her brothers, Vera helps with laundry, dinner and dishes and loves on the family dogs, Gracie and Dusty. She enjoys music – Miley Cyrus and Avril Lavigne are favorites – and reading (The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars are current picks and she has devoured the entire Harry Potter series).
Although her host mom says, “There’s really nothing typical about her, and that’s a good thing,” technology helps Vera to navigate the same world as her peers. Her afternoons often are spent catching up with Hungarian friends and family via Facebook. She listens to audio books via a subscription service called audible.com and uses apps such as MBraille, which allows her to type on her iPhone, and MoneyReader, which recognizes currency and speaks the denomination.
She’s athletic – she loves to ice skate and is a competitive swimmer in Hungary – and goal-oriented. She plans to become an attorney specializing in disability law, “maybe to create more opportunity and help people, especially in Hungary, with any kind of defending they might need,” she says.
With Vera, the Bartimole family agrees that they’re getting so much more than they’re giving. “When she talks to the boys about what her life has been like, it touches something in me and it communicates to her brothers how incredibly blessed they are,” says Suzana. “She’s just as gracious and beautiful as anyone I’ve ever met.”