Barefoot, his shoes in his arms, Mario Chitwood, 14, rushed out of his family’s Coffey Park home into a firestorm he couldn’t see but clearly felt.
He could feel embers, propelled by a powerful wind, land on his sweater and crackle in the grass. Smoke entered his lungs as he walked toward the family car, parked where it always was in the driveway on Brandee Lane.
“I could feel it — it felt like daytime, summer heat,” said Mario, who’s been blind since he was 7.
The panic in his mother Cindy Maldonado’s voice was all he needed to hear to know how serious the fire was.
“I wasn’t really scared. I’m a calm person under pressure, except when I’m being yelled at to run out of the house,” he said.
Mario and his family lost everything in the fire — their home, their belongings and their beloved poodle, Kenzie, which they’ve had for about as long as Mario has been fully blind. One of the more important things Mario lost in the fire was his expensive, state-of-the-art Braille tablet computer called the BrailleSense Polaris, a device Mario’s mother calls his “lifeline.”
“It’s how he’s able to connect to the Internet, check his email, play games and listen to audiobooks,” Maldonado said. “He does his homework and sends it to his teacher.”
Earlier this week, HIMS, Inc., the company that makes the Polaris, donated and delivered a brand new one to Mario. On Wednesday, Neal McKenzie, an assistive technology specialist for the Sonoma County Office of Education, visited Mario at Rincon Valley Charter School to help the boy configure the device.
The tablet computer, touted as the world’s first Google-certified Braille device, includes a touch-sensitive Braille display that combines a traditional Braille notetaker with mainstream Google services such as Docs, Drive, Slides, Sheets and Classroom. It can sell for $5,700 or more.
Sitting in the computer lab of the Sequoia Elementary School campus, where the charter middle school is located, Mario and McKenzie set up the device’s Wi-Fi functions and Mario’s email account. Tiny white buttons on the Braille display rose and fell with each command spoken by the device in rapid speech that was almost unrecognizable.
Mario, however, heard and felt every word.
Gail Doolittle, a special education assistant who works closely with Mario at his school, said Mario has a heightened sense of hearing that allows him to understand words when spoken extremely fast.
Mario has an hereditary eye disease called familial exudative vitreo-retinopathy, or FEVR. His little brother, Max, who turns 3 on Monday, also has it and is currently receiving treatment at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The blind can hear much better than we do,” Doolittle said. “There will be a time when we can no longer understand what he can.”
The new device brings a sense of routine Mario welcomes, after having lost so much. Even so, he recalls the night of the firestorm with humor.
Mario, who said he often has insomnia, recalls being awake after 1 a.m., though no one knew fire was on its way.
When his mother came in to check on him, he pretended to be asleep. The second time she entered his room, it was to tell him there was a fire.