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BHS student with blindness doesn't let disability hold her back

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lifestyles Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

Katelyn Strangstalien doesn’t remember what most things look like.

But she can still picture her grandparent’s farm house in Houston, Minn.; the fields she ran through as a toddler. She remembers most shapes and colors, most of all dark purple and blue. Strangstalien still remembers her sister’s face — at least what it looked like 15 years ago before she lost her sight.

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Strangstalien was 3 years old when cancer took her eyes.

It started when she was 18 months old. In each photo of the youngster, her pupils were white. Doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma.

They removed her left eye, hoping the cancer wouldn’t spread.

After the family returned from a trip to Rome and London, doctors removed her right eye. It was that or risk the cancer spreading to the brain.

Today, the Brainerd High School senior is excelling. She’s taken advanced placement classes and effortlessly navigates the halls of the school with her white cane. She’s been accepted into college, where she’ll study psychology.

But her success doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and long nights of studying.

Strangstalien started learning braille as a toddler.

“I’ve always been a quick learner, so I was able to read better than most of my classmates in kindergarten and quickly reached the top of the class,” she said.

Math, however, was a bit more challenging because of how visual the subject is.

To aid her, staff members use a special paper to draw problems and shapes on. When that paper is placed over a heat source, the shapes bubble up and Strangstalien can feel the math problem.

Each test and worksheet is re-done by the school’s braillist so Strangstalien can complete it.

Strangstalien learned quickly to be vocal in class when a teacher would say “this is where something is,” while pointing to a map or board.

The teenager doesn’t think twice about raising her hand and asking the teacher to explain what they mean.

Overcoming challenges in school are only one part of Strangstalien’s daily life. Sometimes there’s the emotional side.

It’s hard for Strangstalien when her younger sisters don’t understand the disability. Or classmates who will talk to her nearby friends instead of her.

“They think I’m an exotic creature,” she said. “They don’t know what to do or say.”

Don’t let the word “disability” fool you, though. Strangstalien is outgoing and outspoken. She’s the first one to crack a blind joke and won’t hesitate to speak her mind.

“I can come across brash,” she said. “I just like being honest.”

Strangstalien sometimes wears sunglasses on a sunny day to add some comedic relief. She’ll comment about how bright it is outside or disagree if a teacher says she or he looks old.

It’s that witty sense of humor that still surprises Paula Barrer, Strangstalien’s school case manager.

“When I talk with her, I almost forget she’s blind,” Barrer said.

Strangstalien is strong-willed, Barrer said.

“She likes to push herself as hard as she can. I respect that about her,” she said. “She never complains about the disability. She just does what she needs to do.”

Homework takes longer for Strangstalien than most, but she doesn’t mind the extra hours. She just grabs a cup of hot chocolate or chai tea, shuts her bedroom door and cranks some Snoop Dogg, her favorite rap music artist.

After high school, she’ll attend the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, where she’ll study psychology. She hopes to become a social worker or chemical dependency counselor.

“I want to help people because I’ve been there. There are life experiences that send each of us to the job we love,” she said.

But that’s just a small part of Strangstalien’s future.

She wants to go parasailing and sky diving. She wants to visit Germany, Ireland and Mexico. To go on a Caribbean cruise and get her hair braided in Jamaica. To hear the rushing sounds of a giant waterfall.

“I’ve been blind so long I don’t see it as a problem,” she said. “I can be successful and I don’t need to see to do it.”

Sure, there are a few things she misses about being able to see.

Strangstalien would love to run free without the fear of running into something, like she did as a child on her grandparent’s farm. She wants to know what Christmas lights look like. What her two dogs looks like. To see the creations she crafts in pottery class.

But Strangstalien has a lot of things to do in life ­— with or without sight.

“I want to live life to the fullest. I don’t want to miss any opportunities,” she said. “I could have died when I had cancer. I don’t like to hold back because tomorrow I could be gone.”

JESSICA LARSEN, staff writer, may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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