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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 22, 2011

From Guilderland to Malawi
Braille books help the blind a world away

GUILDERLAND — Blind children on the other side of the world are reading Braille books put together by Michael Morawski.

A sweet young man, Morawski was inspired to make the books by Stephanie Pieck. She graduated from Guilderland High School in 1990, perhaps the first blind person to do so. Morawski, 17, is slated to graduate this June.

“When Stephanie comes in and we see her read Braille, it’s really incredible,” said Morawski. “Sometimes, she helps putting the books together.”

Pieck had been sending Braille books to a blind bishop in Malawi. Her mother, Ginny Pieck, is a teaching assistant for special-needs students at Guilderland. They teamed up with special education teacher Michelle Martin and her students, including Morawski, to work on what has become known as The Malawi Project.

“I love to help people,” Morawski said, describing why he has devoted so many hours to the project. “Stephanie said they wanted to send children’s books to Malawi. One day, I asked her to teach me to use the Brailler. I figured it would be something new — worth a shot….Stephanie taught me. It took me about a month to learn.”

Seeing the pictures of the Malawians getting the packages of books, he said “made me really happy.” He went on, “They’re all smiling, although they don’t have much.”

Asked about his plans for the future, Morawski says, “I’d like to take the club and make it a not-for-profit outside the school to help the people of Malawi. They don’t have electricity or clean water or the things we count on every day.”

He also said, “I cannot be certified as a Brailler until I complete high school. I’m looking forward to doing that over the summer….You do it through the Library of Congress.”

Stephanie Pieck’s connection to Malawi came about because of her love of goats.

As a girl, she raised Nubian goats. “She had two national champions,” said her mother. When she was a toddler, she visited the Altamont Fair, and enjoyed patting the goats. “I wanted her to learn to walk without holding my hand. A horse would be too dangerous, so we got a goat.”

“I grew up raising dairy goats,” agreed Stephanie. “We would exhibit them. Some people would see I was blind and say, ‘Do you know so-and-so? They’re blind and they have goats, too.’”

She laughs at the memory.

But it made her decide to start a newsletter for blind people who raise goats. She launched it in 1993 and it reached people in 10 different countries, she said.

Pieck was a student at the Ithaca College School of Music at the time and started the newsletter from her dorm room.

Although she had stopped publication in 2000, she received a letter in 2001 from a blind bishop in Malawi who raised goats, Moyawalero M. Mandala, and started corresponding with him. He is the bishop of a Pentecostal church, she said, and oversees about 50 churches.

“I started sending him books and papers…Now there’s a library there named after me,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. The library is in Balaka on the Rivi-Rivi River.

When Stephanie has finished with her New York Times in Braille, she sends them to Malawi, but they take two months to get there. The villagers are now more aware of the outside world, said Mrs. Pieck.

In a serious tone, Stephanie Pieck went on, “In much of the Third World, there’s a tremendous stigma; it’s shameful to be a person with a disability. Blind people are hidden in their homes, so as not to bring shame to their families, or they are led around the streets to beg. This bishop was disheartened by this. He went from village to village, gathering the blind together to teach them gardening, or animal husbandry.”

Embracing challenges

Stephanie Pieck, who was born blind, was brought up to believe she could meet challenges.

“My parents were of the opinion that I was blind, the world was sighted; it wasn’t going to change for me,” she said. “I could do whatever I could and then ask for help.”

The only drawback she can find with her upbringing, Pieck said, is that it makes her impatient with people who make excuses for themselves.

“She would just learn in a different way,” Mrs. Pieck said of her daughter’s upbringing. “She made me brave. What is a mountain? We put on our hiking boots and climbed one; then she knew.”

Mrs. Pieck found a support group with other blind parents frustrating, as they dwelt on the limitations and felt sorry for themselves. Ginny Pieck’s attitude was, “Stephanie may be blind, but she’ll be the best blind person the world has seen.”

When Stephanie went to the Czech Republic for a piano competition, her mother said, pointing out that she went on her own, she told students who wanted to learn from her, “I’ll practice with you, but you have to come by yourself; use your cane.”

Her mother said that Stephanie has had a profound influence on some of her students. A blind girl in Taiwan, she said, was living in the back room of her parents’ house and both she and her parents thought this was how her life was going to be. “She’s now in a college in another country,” said Mrs. Pieck.

Stephanie graduated from Guilderland High School in 1990, having attended regular classes with her beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Elaine. “She slept through the classes,” quipped Pieck of Elaine, “so she didn’t get the degree.”

In the era before computers, Pieck listened to her lessons on cassettes as well as reading in Braille. She learned to read Braille as easily as sighted children learn to read printed letters, said Pieck. “It was never presented to me as cumbersome,” she said.

Four years later, she graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in piano performance, and lives now on Kings Road in Guilderland.

She performs as a classical pianist — “with a little jazz just for my own amusement,” she said — and she gives lessons to both sighted and blind students. She has developed her own series of piano books, “New Directions,” where each tune is written in ink and then again in Braille. Her books encourage students to use the entire keyboard and she gets even beginners to create some of their own compositions.

Three years ago, Michelle Martin, who was looking for community service projects for her students, asked Pieck to get involved. “I’ve gone through a couple of cycles of kids,” Pieck said. “Last year, one student got really, really, really excited about the project.” That student was Michael Morawski.

Giving his all

He is now the president of the newly formed club, The Malawi Project. “Currently, I am our only member,” he said last week, but he’s looking for more. One of the reasons he wanted to form a club is to be able to have fund-raisers.

While mailing books for the blind is free, he said, the card-stock paper for punching out the Braille is expensive.

When the books are sent, useful items are wedged between them for padding; these include clothing and shoes. One picture from Malawi shows a boy wearing an Altamont Elementary School T-shirt.

Morawski worked on a pizza sale fund-raiser with Martin. “Without Ms. Martin, this club would not happen,” said Morawski.

He has built a website for The Malawi Project at TheMalawiProject.weeblycom, which will let students interested in the project learn more about it.

“He gets totally engrossed in projects,” said his mother, Christine Morawski. “He likes anything mechanical.”

Last year, he won the Super Stock Rally division world championship at the Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. It took Morawski and his mother 300 hours to build the winning car.

Of the Malawi Project, she said, “He likes helping the kids out. He brought the Braille machine home and did it all summer….Whatever he does, he gives it his all. He doesn’t have an iPod; he’s not interested in computer games or video games. He’s very motivated, very driven. He’s always been like that. I couldn’t ask for a better son.”

She went on about her son’s commitment, “When they were trying to get the school board to approve the club, I heard about it every day.”

Kids interested in joining the club may reach Morawski by e-mail. His e-mail address reflects one of his greatest passions — WrestlerMike@nycap.rr.com.

Morawski has been wrestling since seventh grade. He’s in the 119-pound weight class.

“You do weight lifting and learn to be in top physical shape. You have to learn all the techniques,” he said. “I like it because it’s an individual sport but a team sport more than any other sport.

“Your team is almost like a family. The entire team will cheer for you. You have all those people behind you as motivators. Because of that, I have gone into other things, like winning the Soap Box Derby. I like to get out there and get stuff accomplished.”

Of wrestling, Morawski said, “It taught me hard work can pay off, and you need to give back in some way.”

Right now, he’s sidelined for eight weeks with a wrestling injury — a torn meniscus in his knee joint that has him using crutches. He’s spry though as he hops about the resource room at the high school, going from the computer to the Brailler, to the closet where the Malawi Project gear is stored and then out to the hallway where the “overflow,” as he calls it, is stored in his locker.

In his locker, Morawski has, among other things, a large map of Africa with an arrow pointing to the small, land-locked country of Malawi, near the east coast of the continent.

“The homes in the villages are made of mud,” says Morawski. “They have no electricity, no power at all, and no running water.”

He concluded of his experiences wrestling at Guilderland, “All these people are helping me. I wanted to help people that didn’t have what I have.”

Service projects

Those sentiments are familiar to Morawski’s teacher, Michelle Martin. A special education teacher, she used to be a social worker and she believes community service is good for her students.

“Helping others makes us feel good,” she said.

In past years, she has had her students cook a meal for residents at Ronald MacDonald House in Albany. Typically, they are out-of-town families whose children are hospitalized nearby.

She asks her students how they feel about helping with a community project before it starts, while it’s going on, and afterwards.

Some students have never before been involved in a service project, she said, and are skeptical; others are neutral; and still others are positive.

“I encourage them to do it, but they don’t have to,” Martin said.

It improves their organizational and math skills as they plan the meal and shop for groceries, and their communication skills as they interact with new people. “It gets them to stretch a little,” said Martin.

She recounts how one student, before the start of the project, thought people should “be able to stand on their own.” Martin recounts, “At the end, she said, ‘I felt good doing this and I will do this again. I get it now.’”

Students who use the resource room, she said, sometimes find it hard to accept they have a learning challenge. “We like to make our students excited about being here,” she said. “A project like this lets us sit around and talk about things they’re interested in.”

Asked how she got involved with The Malawi Project, Martin said,  “My dear friend, Ginny, and her daughter.” She went on, “I generally like to stay local. This was a local person who made this incredible connection with a bishop in Africa.”

Transcribing books

Jim Nevins, a hall monitor at the high school, has donated children’s books to the project. It takes Morawski four to five hours to type the text of a picture book into Braille on thick paper.

It’s not as simple as using a typewriter, where striking each key produces a letter. Rather, there are six levers, each producing a different configuration of dots.

Louis Braille invented the first digital form of writing in the 1820s while at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris. He modified a system of “night writing,” which Napoleon Bonaparte wanted so his soldiers could communicate silently in the dark. Braille’s system consists of raised dots on a grid of two rows of three dots each.

Morawski has to know which keys to strike to make up the combination of dots for each letter.

After he’s finished, Stephanie Pieck reads the work with her fingers to find mistakes, which Morawski than corrects by “squishing down” errant dots. “You can smush an extra dot with your fingers,” he said.

The lines of Braille are then cut out and affixed under the printed words on each page so both a sighted and blind person, perhaps a mother and child, can read the book together.

Running his fingers over one of the pages, Morawski says, “A blind person could read that. Isn’t that incredible?”

He explains his motivation for working on children’s books. “The kids need something to read, too.” He said. “I wanted them to be able to read the book together.”

The first book Morawski Brailled, Goodnight, Moon, “took me forever,” he said. “Forever” was about 10 hours, he estimated. Now, he could complete the same book in two hours.

He’s worked more recently on transcribing Corduroy the Bear’s adventures into Braille. “I remember it from when I was younger, my teachers reading to me,” said Morawski who attended Guilderland Elementary School in kindergarten and first grade before moving to Pine Bush and then Westmere. “It brings back happy memories.”

Morawski is constantly thinking about how to help the blind Malawians he has never met.

He bought a package of flash cards that he found in Target, one for each letter of the alphabet, and now he’s applying Braille to each card. The “P” card has pictures and lists the words “pail,” “penguin,” “penny,” “piano,” “pony,” and “puppy.”

“I thought, ‘If I’m sending books, why not send something to learn to say the letters?’” asked Morawski. “They don’t have a lot of teaching materials.”

He goes on, “I want the kids to be able to learn English. Most of the books we send over are in English. They have many languages in Malawi,” he says, and hops over to the computer to get to his website, which has links on different aspects of Malawi. He reports that the official language is Chichewa and there are half a dozen other languages listed, too.

“I’d like to translate some of the books over to their language,” he said. Asked how he’d do that, Morawski says, “I’d just use Google to translate it and then paste it in.”

Later, he reaches deep within a bag in his locker to pull out a wooden alphabet block, the kind that American children play with to learn their letters.

The wooden block was cut, along with others, by Ginny Pieck’s husband, Stephanie’s father, who is a carpenter. One side of the block has a cutout letter, which can be felt, and another side has upholstery tacks arranged to identify the letter in Braille.

“A blind parent can use them with their children,” said Ginny Pieck.

Broader mission

Morawski’s mentor, Stephanie Pieck, has also expanded her initial mission of sending books, with encouragement from Bishop Mandala. “He found out I was a teacher and thought I could teach anything,” she said.

So the bishop asked Pieck to make cassettes on how to garden and how to cook. “In one letter, he wrote that the blind people, up to 20 or 30, would sit under a tree and listen to the tape and talk about it.”

Asked if cultural differences — such as cooking different kinds of food on an open fire as opposed to an electric or gas stove, wouldn’t make such instruction difficult, Pieck said there are certain universals. “When you boil water in a pot, it doesn’t matter if it’s over a fire or on a stove. The handle vibrates and you listen for it to dance.”

The same, she said, applied for telling when meat is done. “They have no thermometers, but you can tell by the feel…Raw chicken has a squishy feeling; when you cook it, it’s firmer.”

Pieck went on, about an overarching philosophy: “It’s just not being afraid to try stuff.” The assurance that useful tasks like gardening and cooking can be done gives someone the confidence they need to do it, she said.

The bishop rides his bike to a post office in Malawi to pick up the packages sent from Guilderland.

“Their infrastructure is not as developed,” said Pieck. “Where he’s at, there’s no running water, no electricity. Bicycles are just the best way to get around. The terrain is challenging, so it’s easier to get a bike through than a truck….He takes packages from the post office to the villagers…As the library has grown, it’s spread over different places.”

Next, Pieck would like to raise funds for bookshelves. “There’s no space for more books,” she said. She’d also like funds to fix three Braille machines in need of repair. If they could be sent to Malawi, the blind people there would be able to write as well as read Braille, she said.

Those who would like to make donations may contact Stephanie Pieck by e-mail at TheMusicSuite@Verizon.net to learn more.

“Always, if the bishop receives something, he thanks who sent it,” she said.

Ginny Pieck concluded of the Guilderland High School students doing Braille,  “When you help in a soup kitchen, you see the results of what you’re doing. With the Malawi Project, they are helping people on the other side of the world. There are no tangible results. You’re helping someone you’ll never see or who will never be able to thank you.”

—By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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