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Visually impaired teen thrives in Hyrum school

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Yesenia Oliva blocks a shot during a goalball scrimmage. She maintains a 4.0 GPA despite being visually impaired.

Yesenia Oliva blocks a shot during a goalball scrimmage. She maintains a 4.0 GPA despite being visually impaired.

Associated Press

NIBLEY, Cache County (AP) — Although she's done her best to help Yesenia Oliva during the valedictorian's three years in high school, Mountain Crest special education teacher Jane DeByle made it clear that the student has become the teacher in their relationship.

"Yesenia is my hero," DeByle said. "She's such a kind person, and I just think she's an amazing individual. I don't think anyone works as hard as she does."

While maintaining a 4.0 GPA throughout high school would be a challenge for anyone, Oliva managed to do so despite being visually impaired. Born with glaucoma and morning glory syndrome — a birth defect that led to her optic nerve not fully developing — she already had serious vision problems before being shot in the left eye with a BB gun when she was 4 years old.

"I can't see anything out of my left eye, while I can see pretty large print and make out shapes and colors with my right eye," Oliva explained. "So, I mainly read Braille and use a cane when I'm somewhere unfamiliar."

The daughter of Nicacio and Maria Oliva, Yesenia and her four brothers and two sisters moved to Nibley from Shelley, Idaho, about five years ago. During her first year at Mountain Crest in Hyrum, Oliva's older sister, Rose, helped familiarize herself with the school. But like most sophomores, there was an adjustment period.

"She was nice to show me where my classes were at first, then got me involved in different clubs after school and drove me home," Oliva said of her sibling. "It took me about a week to get used to it because all the halls look the same to me, but I finally figured it out.

"And the teachers there were really great," Oliva continued. "They were really understanding and really good at finding different ways to help me if something wasn't working for me. And the other students were really good, too."

Oliva said ceramics was her favorite class in high school, but she also enjoyed painting, math and psychology.

"Yesenia helped me out with the computer all the time," DeByle said. "She learns things so quickly, and then she retains them. Her memory is just amazing. I would call myself sighted-impaired because I'm not half as smart as her — and I have my eyes."

DeByle said Oliva has "come a long ways" from the quiet and shy sophomore she first got to know.

"She wasn't really an advocate for herself," DeByle noted. "But now she's an advocate for herself."

Oliva plans to attend the University of Utah this fall and has already received a $5,000 scholarship from the SOMOS Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and a $3,000 award through the National Federation of the Blind. She wants to go to the University of Utah so she can pursue a career in a medical-related field, preferably something along the lines of pediatrics.

"I just like to help other people," Oliva explained, then added with a smile, "and I think little kids are just really cute."

Oliva has won numerous awards the past two years at the Regional Braille Challenge in Salt Lake City, including two first-place finishes this year in speed and accuracy and reading comprehension. She's also a member of Utah's youth goalball team — a sport in which two teams of three try to throw a ball, equipped with bells, into goals on the opposite end of the court.

Oliva has traveled back to Florida twice for tournaments, and she plans to continue playing on the state's women's team while at the University of Utah.

Although she admits to being a little nervous about taking on a new school and a much larger campus, Olivia said "You've got to move out someday and go to college."

She plans to spend some time at the university in June to familiarize herself with the campus, and she might end up getting her first guide dog next summer.

"When I was young, I kind of felt like my vision impairment was a burden because I wouldn't be able to drive and do this and that," Oliva said. "But being around other blind people by playing goalball and other things has been a really positive influence in my life.

"It's shown me that it's not all bad to be blind, and you can actually do a lot of stuff if you try. It just takes determination. You can do whatever you want to do."