When she was very young, she was overly sensitive to sound and touch, which made her extremely shy. She found it difficult to speak.
"I was very frustrated because I couldn't talk, and I wanted to talk," Indigo said.
But over time, Indigo's confidence has grown. She learned Braille and is now at an academic level approaching other children her age. She's studying fractions and the Civil War, and other students are always asking her for help with their studies.
For most of her life, Indigo, 13, has been a student at St. Joseph's School for the Blind in Jersey City. (The students' last names are not printed out of respect for their privacy.)One of a kind
The 116-year-old institution - the only school of its kind in New Jersey - recently moved into a brand-new facility at 761 Summit Ave., near Reservoir No. 3 in The Heights. A dedication ceremony for the new facility will be held on Monday, March 19 at 3 p.m.
At St. Joseph's, which was founded and is still overseen by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, blind and visually impaired students like Indigo are given specialized instruction in academics as well as mobility, socialization and independence skills, up to age 21.
Yet for all this attention, the students' parents don't pay a dime. Local school districts provide much of the funding for the students' education; the rest is paid for through fundraising events, private donations and grants.
More than half of the school's roughly 80 students are multi-disabled - meaning they have another disability, such as brain damage, physical limitations or developmental challenges. The school's teachers are specially certified to work with such students.
"Every student is different, and their goals are different," says Tonya S. Hall, the school's director of development. "We're helping them build their capacity for independence."
Touring the new building
Earlier this month, Hall gave the Reporter a tour of the new building. Students and staff had relocated only a few days earlier, and everyone was just getting settled in.
Acoustics can play a large role in helping the visually impaired navigate, and Hall says St. Joseph's students are still learning to find their way around the new building - but they're learning fast.
For students with limited visual ability, all of the school's doorframes and windows are painted in a bold blue to help the students distinguish them from the walls.
A large gymnasium with a stage that Hall says will host musical performances anchors the school's first floor. The gym will also be used for physical therapy and fitness sessions. It's more than twice the size of the old gym, Hall said.
Soon, a multi-sensory playground with tactile equipment will open on the school's three-acre campus. It will be named in honor of Yankees great Phil Rizzuto, a longtime supporter of St. Joseph's.
The new school building was constructed adjacent to Concordia House, a full-time residential facility for students who live too far away for a daily commute. Built in 1996, Concordia House teaches students like Antoine L., 18, independent-living skills like food preparation and matching their clothes.
One of the biggest differences between the new and old facilities, Hall said, is the elevator.
The difference: the new one actually works.
At the old Baldwin Avenue location, an entire school day would often grind to a halt due to a continually malfunctioning elevator.
"Having an elevator that breaks every day, when you have students in wheelchairs, really changes the course of your day," Hall says.
On the second floor is what Hall calls the "therapy suite." Occupational therapy, physical therapy, and orientation and mobility are all taught in this area.
Around the corner is the music room. As Hall explains, sometimes multi-disabled students who won't normally speak will join in a singing session instead.
Elsewhere on the second floor is a heated pool with a wheelchair ramp. Tile work is just about wrapped up.
In the nearby Enrichment Media Center, staff member Susan Hart is nearly finished unpacking. Hart, who is visually impaired, has carefully arranged the room and its Braille and keyboarding equipment.
"I'm an organized soul," she says with a smile.
Down the hall in the office of Gerald Kitzhoffer, the chief school administrator, it's a somewhat different story. Packed-up boxes still dominate the room. "I'm the packrat," he jokes. A 33-year veteran of the blindness field, Kitzhoffer is only the second lay administrator in the school's history.
The hallways themselves are clear and wide - much wider, in fact, than anyone is used to. The old facility on Baldwin Avenue, the school's home for 80 years, was crowded and cramped, Kitzhoffer says. Not so with the new location.
"We did our best to make it accessible and usable," Kitzhoffer says. "This is a new, modern facility. This is a real change for us, and it's really helpful for the kids."
The St. Joseph's staff had expected students to be uneasy with moving into an unfamiliar space, but staff members say that that anxiety never materialized. Kitzhoffer says several visits to the new building eased students' concerns by giving them a chance to walk the halls before the big move.
A transformed school
Ed Lucas was a student at St. Joseph's in the 1950s. He witnessed firsthand the school's transformation from the time when he was a student there.
"In those days there were no specialized teachers," Lucas recalls. "Some of [the Sisters] didn't even know Braille."
After graduating, Lucas stayed on as a volunteer, eventually becoming the first layperson to join the school's administration. He's now its director of development and public education.
Kitzhoffer says visually impaired staff members like Lucas and Susan Hart make good role models for the school's students.
"They know what the kids go through," Kitzhoffer said.
Not surprisingly, many of the students at St. Joseph's hope to eventually enter the blindness field as a career. Adriana M., 11, wants to be a teacher for the blind, and Briasia B., 12, wants to invent new technologies for the visually impaired - that is, if her first choice, Supreme Court Justice, isn't available.
Spreading the word
Despite more than a century in the community, the staff of St. Joseph's worries that few know the school even exists.
"Even though we've been around a long time, not a lot of people know about us," Kitzhoffer says. "There are parents who don't know what we offer. Our biggest challenge is to let parents know about us."
For more information about St. Joseph's School for the Blind, visit www.sjsb.net or contact Tonya S. Hall at (201) 876-5432, ext. 113.
Christopher Zinsli may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.