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Blind 16-year-old sees lack of sight a ‘minor hindrance’

February 13, 2014
By Scott Kindberg - , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

The junior varsity basketball game between Maple Grove and Southwestern high schools is playing out on the court below as Media One Group's Tom Ames and Keith Martin prepare for the radio broadcast of the varsity contest that will follow.

As they do, their future halftime guest, 16-year-old Nicholas Hlifka sits nearby in the last row of the bleachers behind the Southwestern bench and mentions that he prefers listening to the play-by-play of his favorite sports teams on SiriusXM Radio rather than relying on the network pros who describe the action on TV.

The comment draws Ames' immediate reaction.

Article Photos

Photo by Scott Kindberg
Sherman junior Nicholas Hlifka, right, talks at halftime of Wednesday night’s Maple Grove-Southwestern basketball game with Keith Martin, Jamestown Community College athletic director.

"He's a man after my own heart, right there," said the veteran voice of high school sports in the Southern Tier.

Nick laughs, but it's clear that his response is not an effort to patronize the man who will be interviewing him later. Instead, the Sherman Central School junior expounds even more on his love for all things radio.

"I really appreciate the radio as the play is unfolding," he says, "because you're getting each little thing that's going on."

In Nick's world, detail is important. It's a necessity, really, born from the fact that he's been blind since birth.

"I don't see it as a disability," he says cheerfully. "I see it as a minor hindrance. Like, say you had a broken arm, I see it as the same kind of thing. You have to work around it, and you do. You make the most you have available to you. I'm not going to stop living my life because I can't see."

Molly Martin has taught computers and career and financial management at Sherman Central School for six years and admits that she's "never seen anything" quite like Nick. The wife of Keith Martin, Molly was the one who suggested to her husband that Nick might benefit from some on-air radio experience at a high school basketball game.

"There's nothing that child can't do," she said. "I learn more from him than anything he'll learn from me. He's a gift."

Joel Fisher, Nick's fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher, said the teenager "has been inspiring people at SCS since the first day he stepped through its doors."

How so?

In addition to his love of sports, Nick is ranked No. 1 in his class (99.25 average); placed first in all of North America at the National Braille Challenge championship in Los Angeles in 2012; operates his own website - NicksWeatherPage - for local weather forecasts and information; and is vice president of a "ham radio" club in Union City, Pa.

After high school, his college plans include attending Penn State University for a degree in meteorology, which will "hopefully take me into a career of obtaining, analyzing and/or disseminating weather information, either through broadcasting or another facet of the field."

Nick credits his parents - Gale and Eugene - for allowing him to experience all the world has to offer.

"They've always wanted me to try everything possible and they wanted me to be equal with somebody that's sighted," he said. " ... Not to stereotype, but parents of blind kids tend to do more for them and not let them experience as much in an attempt to kind of help them. In the end, it's not really helping them at all, because what helps them is experiencing things as much as possible."

And Nick has experienced plenty in his young life.

"He could have very easily taken the easy road, but he has chosen not to," Fisher said. "Not once in the seven years that I have known Nick has he used his blindness as an excuse for anything."

Instead, it's been a platform for him to say, "Why not?"

Along the way, he's climbed mountains in Peru as part of a Spanish class trip; mowed the lawn and ridden a go-cart on his family property (with one of his parents riding shotgun); taken walks in the woods alone; tried downhill skiing, swimming and piano lessons; and done an internship at the Chautauqua County 911 Center in Mayville.

"Boy, it was a pleasure," said communications supervisor Marv Cummings. "Is he the neatest person you've ever met in your life or what? He's got such potential to do whatever he wants in this world.

"The first few minutes after I met him, I just got this feeling that this kid is bright, one of the brightest teenagers I've met in my life. He was in a room full of adults when he was with me ... and we could talk to him about anything and he would usually know more than we would know."

When the two-month summer internship was over, Nick received a certificate, honoring his time at the 911 Center.

"He kind of touched our hearts," Cummings said.

Do you detect a theme here?

Cindy Stoddard is an aid at Sherman and has worked with Nick since he was a second-grader.

"I make sure Nick has his work available to him in Braille for every class," she said. "This takes planning ahead on the teacher's part and me typing the work into the computer, which a program translates into Braille and then embossed out."

Stoddard said that while there was initial skepticism by some about Nick's ability to succeed once he reached high school, that was quickly erased.

"I only have 1 years left with Nick here at Sherman, although he tells me I'm to retire from my job and follow him to college. ... I will miss him and I will feel like I did when my own children graduated. ... I'm very proud of him."

One can only imagine how his mom and dad feel.

About the time Nick hit elementary school, it wasn't usual for Eugene, a self-employed engineer, to take his son out into the woods and teach him to identify trees by how the bark felt and how the leaves were shaped.

"He can't see, so you teach him to improvise," Gale said.

Added Eugene: "How do you describe a cloud to a kid who can't see? You start thinking about different way to express ordinary stuff."

And Nick, not surprisingly, soaked it up like a sponge.

"His memory is amazing," Eugene said. "He scares me his memory is so good. His mind is like a steel trap."

For example, Eugene said, Nick could tell him every street and every intersection from their home near Route 20 and Interstate 90 to the eastside of Erie, Pa., where Nick's grandmother lived.

"He would know by the bumps in the road when you were at a certain corner," Eugene marveled.

At the time, Nick was 5 years old.

Fast-forward 11 years. With unwavering support from the faculty, staff and students at Sherman Central School, Nick is on course to be the class valedictorian in 2015.

"I told him, 'If you're the president of the United States," Molly Martin said, "I expect to be able to hang out at the White House. We're all going to say we knew you when."

Added Fisher: "I'm very excited to see how this young man's life evolves. I guarantee he will do whatever he sets his mind to, because there has not been an obstacle that has slowed him down yet."

Gale said that she and Eugene are often asked how they have been so willing to allow Nick, despite his blindness, to experience all that he has in his young life. The answer is always the same.

"Our main goal is for him to always be as independent as possible," she said. "The job of a parent is to raise the child so they can fly out of the nest."

To this point, Nick is soaring.

"In the end, we can all get to a phenomenal place," Nick said. "You just have to work for it. Don't let any roadblock get in the way, because there's nothing that can stop you. You can always get to where you want to go."



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