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Teen with limited vision unlocks unlimited potential at WorkCamp

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Gabriel Patterson, 15, ran the chop saw across a wooden plank to prepare it for the deck he and his teammates were building for WorkCamp in Bowling Green June 24-28.

He hammered nails, poured cement and carried boards to the house where others were assembling the frame. He had so much fun using the hammer and saw that he earned a nickname from his team — Thor Saw — after wielding the hammer over his head in the same manner as the Marvel Avengers character.

Gabriel is a marvel in his own right.

Unless you saw his white collapsible cane or noticed that he linked arms with a buddy to be guided across the King George High School cafeteria, you would never know he was doing the same things as the other WorkCampers were doing but with extremely limited vision.

Gabriel, a rising sophomore and parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston, has a genetic disorder called Batten Disease, which causes vision loss, seizures and cognitive impairment. One of his sisters also has the disease.

Symptoms didn’t show up until he was close to 9 years old. His mother, Bridget, a crew leader for another WorkCamp team, said most of Gabriel’s central vision is gone. Eventually, he will be completely blind.

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Like any mother, Bridget was nervous about his participation at WorkCamp.

“With his limited vision it felt like an unlimited number of things that could go wrong or be potentially dangerous for him,” she said. “Visual impairment is something most people aren’t used to dealing with and our world is definitely made for the sighted. So, I was worried that the people interacting with him wouldn’t think about the kinds of things he needed.”

Yet, she didn’t need to worry. 

“He is willing to do just about anything and sets his own limitations. It’s amazing to see the teens come together to rally around to make sure he doesn’t trip,” said Assistant Contractor Ann Booker from St. John Neumann. “We’re very careful with our tools. He’s been a very productive member of the team and you would not know his visual impairment.”

WorkCamper Emma Forero, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, was surprised by Gabriel. “He can do so much more than I thought he would be able to do,” she said. “You just have to show him how.”

Showing Gabriel meant hammering nails three-quarters of the way and then letting him hammer them fully into the boards. “We can put our finger on the nail, start the nail, and then he’ll put his finger on ours and finish drilling,” said Paul Dwyer, the adult crew leader on Gabriel’s team.

Dwyer was inspired by Gabriel. “He’s courageous to come to this place,” he said, getting emotional. “He came to this place not knowing any of his surroundings and in one week helped build a deck. It’s one of those things where you think you are there for them and it’s just the opposite.”  

The WorkCampers were welcoming to Gabriel.

“Another crew came and one of the coolest things was the very first task of tearing down the old deck, a boy from the other crew came right over and grabs Gabe and ushered him to the area without any prompting from any adult,” said Dwyer. “That was cool.”

Bridget is grateful for her son’s experience at WorkCamp.

“I can’t say enough good things about our parish stakeholder Nick Buck and the diocese’s response to have Gabriel. They’ve been nothing but encouraging,” said Bridget. “We worked with Ed Gloninger, WorkCamp coordinator, to figure out the best way to accommodate him, not only in terms of what would keep him safe but what would make him feel comfortable and included, and as much like all the other kids as he possibly could.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019