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You Oughta Be in History, You’re a Unique Story
National Women’s History Month
by Sisters and Associates of the Sisters of the Holy Family

by Ann Marie Gelles, SHF

Ann Marie Gelles, SHF

Ann Marie Gelles, SHF

My name is Ann Gelles.  My twin sister, Marie, and I were born in Connamaugh, Pennsylvania.  Mom and Dad were shocked and surprised because we were born 10 weeks premature and they were expecting one baby, not two.  The doctor gave us a 10 percent chance of surviving.

After a few months at home, Mom noticed that I wasn’t following people, lights or objects like Marie.  The doctor finally told her, “Ann is practically blind.”  Someone advised my folks to take me home, love me and treat me as normally as possible.  After my sister Maureen was born, we moved to Reno, Nevada.

Paul and David joined our family after moving to Reno.   My first classroom was the furnace room at Echo Loder Elementary School.  Several peers and I were the first blind or visually impaired children in Reno to be allowed to go to school in town.  Our parents paid our teacher’s salary for our first year, because the school district wanted us to prove we could learn before they would hire a teacher.  We moved into a beautiful new classroom when I was in the second grade.

I tried to do everything my brothers and sisters did.  We enjoyed horseback riding, swimming and camping during the warm months.  We liked ice skating, tobogganing and snow skiing in the winter months.  I wasn’t good at any sport, but I would rather play than watch.  We competed in horse shows.  I won once, which I still can’t believe.  I almost ran over the judge trying to pick up my first place ribbon.

I finally took lessons in snow skiing when I was in college with the encouragement of one of my Visually Impaired teachers. Teaching blind people to ski was just getting off the ground then.  Spending a week skiing with other blind or physically disabled friends in Winter Park, Colorado, was a big thrill.  If I could ski, I could do anything.

I have wanted to teach blind and visually impaired children since I was 10 years old.  I became interested in teaching when I started helping my friends who had trouble learning things at Echo Loder. Although the principal put a stop to my activities, I sought other opportunities to work with other blind people down the road.

I spent most of my school day in a regular classroom and some time in a resource room learning blindness skills in elementary school.  I learned to advocate for myself early when teachers tried to excuse me from assignments.  I wanted to do what everyone else was doing.  Besides, I knew I couldn’t aspire to be an excellent teacher if I didn’t know math or science or other things.

In middle and high school, teacher of the visually impaired visited only a few times a year.  I attended my neighborhood schools.  I loved to learn, but it was much more difficult.  Large print materials arrived late or weren’t available.   I kept on pushing forward towards my teaching dream.  Despite all the roadblocks, I graduated with honors.  Imagine that!

A special board was convened during the first semester of my senior year at the University of Nevada, Reno.  My major was elementary education with a minor in special education.  My advisor had serious concerns about letting me student teach.  My former VI teacher and skiing friend went to bat for me, and I was allowed to teach in a fifth grade class.

After graduating with my BS degree from UNR, I joined the Sisters of the Holy Family, a community of Catholic sisters whose mission is to “seek out and advocate for the poor and needy, especially families, for the Kingdom of God.”  I wanted to show kids like me that God loved them.  “Remember you belong to the people; consider them first,” is one of our founder’s mantras.

I went back to school to study for a master’s degree in special education for the visually impaired.  I graduated with distinction from San Francisco State University ready to teach as a credentialed educator at long last.  I taught two years as an itinerant teacher and six years as a special day class teacher for San Mateo County in California.  I lost the last bit of my sight at the beginning of my third year of teaching for San Mateo.  I received my first Guide Dog, “Honey,” the following summer. For four years I taught in a full-inclusion program at a local elementary school in Reno, and I now teach Braille to blind and visually impaired students at the California School for the Blind.  Teaching at CSB has been the most enriching experience of my teaching career.

I teach Braille full time now.  My goal is to make learning Braille more satisfying and fun than the way I learned.  I try to inspire and encourage students with exciting activities such as the CSB Braille Bee, Who Wants to be a Braille Millionaire, Braille Pentathlons, Gelles Challenges, Braille Halls of Fame and other fun competitions and games.

I like to challenge my students to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way.  Experts in the field estimate that approximately 70-80% of blind and visually impaired adults are unemployed or under-employed.  It is also believed that 90% of those blind or visually impaired adults who are literate in Braille find meaningful work.  I am grateful to be a small part of helping my students discover their dreams, work towards their goals, and eventually attain their heart’s desires.  I have been living my dream for 33 years as a Sister of the Holy Family.