“I am finally home”, says Caroline Benavídez, an educator for the Albuquerque Public School system, who teaches visually impaired youngsters, grades 1-5, the art of cooking. Caroline, a 3rd generation Hispanic American, whose maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Mexico, was born blind and raised in California. Caroline’s love for cooking was sparked at age 8, when her parents placed her in weekend cooking classes, offered by the “Foundation for the Junior Blind.” Ms. Benavídez recalls the experience as if it were yesterday, “I will never forget that teacher, her name was Fran. We did all kinds of things in her classes. We used ovens, we used knives, we cooked, and I felt so empowered by that and I had a lot of confidence in the kitchen because of her. Fran said her job was to be the adult and teach us how to do it safely…Sometimes blind kids feel that they are given a token experience. I talked to other kids and they all felt the same way. Doing art with your classmates: someone will come along and say oh, that is really pretty and know it does not look anything like theirs. You can grow up with this feeling of, this is just good enough. With cooking she did not make us feel that way; we did not do simple things we graduated to some really complex things. I did not grow up afraid of knives or ovens, because she never allowed us to be afraid of it.” At home, Caroline collected recipes, as she was assigned the job of helper in her mother’s effort to keep a spotless kitchen. Caroline remembers the moment she began to fly, “When I got married at 18, I just felt like I was in heaven, because I felt I could cook and experiment.”
Caroline was born with two eye conditions. Although her right eye appeared normal, behind it stood a dead optic nerve. Her left eye, on the other hand, allowed her to see colors and eventually light and dark, due to a condition called sclerocornea, a cornea comprised of scar tissue. Caroline says of her childhood, “My mom did not know very much about how to raise a blind kid, she had made a decision very early, that I was going to do what everyone else did…and I think that was a very big influence on my life.” Believing that they taught their daughter as much as they could, Caroline’s parents enrolled her in an ophthalmologist approved boarding school, at age 4. Here is where she learned dressing and eating and other basic skills. “Then,” Caroline recalls, “I went to a school for blind kids, but a day school, I came home every afternoon and played with cousins.” She was taught Braille and the keyboarding skills necessary to prepare typewritten assignments for her teachers. “When I was about 10,” Caroline reflects on another pivotal point in her life, “my dad was explaining how they had redone the living room. He was explaining some pictures they put on the wall and stopped mid-sentence, he said you know when you have your own apartment. I am not going to be able to choose this stuff for you. You are going to have to make these decisions yourself. He did not say if, he said when, and I never grew up believing otherwise.” The competency Caroline developed in primary school permitted her to attend regular middle school, high school, and college.
Ms. Benavídez began her career by teaching regular education grades 4, 5, & 6 for 4 years, when she was offered the position of program developer/educator for the visually impaired. Delighted, she obtained the requisite certifications and excelled in these roles. Caroline says here “she was fortunate to have a classroom with a kitchen… on Fridays I watched them have the same power that I did; the realization that they could be independent and they could do this just by being taught the proper ways to do things and figuring out their own ways.” Caroline’s career continued to bloom, while she and Glen raised their family. Caroline gave birth to a daughter and then a son. Caroline says, “I always cooked from scratch, my kids grew up with homemade bread and pancakes.” Their daughter, Emily married and had 4 children and is now embarking upon a nursing career, as a single mom. Their son, Jeremiah who became a freelance videographer after serving 4 years in the navy, is married with one child. Caroline remarks on how sensory attuned her children are. Her son, when creating the audio portion of his videos, continually asks the question, “will my mother know what’s going on?” Ms. Benavídez and her husband purchased a home, became grandparents, and celebrated 32 years of marriage, before his rather sudden death in 2003.
In 2004, Ms. Benavídez, now 51, agreed to be a presenter for “The National Federation for the Blind’s” convention in Georgia. Later that evening, a gentleman from New Mexico, by the name of Diego, asked her to dance and within a couple minutes, she knew something was about to happen. It was not long before she accepted his invitation to visit; love prevailed, Caroline relocated, and they were married. “…Finally home,” is how Caroline characterizes her new setting, “I love the Native American culture, I love the spirituality they have, I love the music, I love the rhythm that they have with life, so I like to surround myself with those things.”
The new chapter of Caroline’s career began as an educator for “The Commission for the Blind,” where she taught seniors and adults, who had gone blind and were going blind, respectively. It was year and a half later, when Ms. Benavídez accepted the position to teach cooking skills to visually impaired youngsters, within the Special Education Department of the Albuquerque Public School System. After completing grade 5, these students will continue their education alongside sighted counterparts.
Currently, Ms. Benavídez’ Zia Elementary School class consists of 17 children. “One little girl,” as Caroline describes the magic, “she has been in the kitchen before…she was in my summer school class…actually I bought a watermelon and we were going to cut the watermelon and it was really intimidating to her, she was like I don’t know if I want to use a knife. You know honey, it will be safe. I will make sure that you get safe and then eventually you will get to do it. We will cut it together, then I gave her a chunk. Then she did it by herself and the just to watch her go from fear to just empowered. It happens so quickly and it is just really neat. She was at a convention a month later, and she met one of our friends at a restaurant. She walks up to her and says, guess what I can do, I can cut.” Next projects for the month of December are doe ornaments and gingerbread men. Caroline continues to reflect why she is so passionate about empowering her students with this skillset, “I know in my life, I have 50 years later vivid memories of how I felt standing there in that kitchen with an apron eating something that I had made.”
Having considered the cost required to properly outfit the kitchen, Caroline listed the school in the Target® wedding registry to benefit the cooking class in tandem with reaching out to the Lion’s organization. Ms. Miriam Stucker, Albuquerque, New Mexico Lions’ Past District Governor, is responsible for creating a wave of support that extends to the east coast.
Caroline Benavídez, having magnified her light in a myriad of ways, has this to say to the sighted community: “Blind people desire to be accepted on terms of equality. They don’t want the special chance, they want to be able to be competitive in the same jobs, in the same relationships. All they need is for people to give them a chance, to get past their preconceived ideas and let us show what we are able to do. You can’t ignore the fact, that somebody is blind; at the same time, it can’t be a deciding factor. Because what you think might be true is not necessarily so. We can do everything everybody else can. We just do it in different ways.”
You are invited to light a candle for Ms. Benavídez, who celebrates her 60th birthday on January 7th, 2013 by supporting this worthy cause: Target® Wedding Registry.
© 2012 Pamela D. Garrison
* Photographer: Lion Miriam Stucker
Caroline Benavidez, Teacher; Carla Sanchez, Teacher; Lion Shirley Milton