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Seeing to the needs of others each day

As the juvenile macular degeneration that Teresa Fernald Howard has had since she was a little girl gets worse -- colors are disappearing -- her tech savvy has been getting stronger, and so has her ambition to use her new skills in a career that helps others.

To get dressed in the morning for her internship, she uses a gadget that can read threads in her clothes and tell her what color she picked from the closet. On the way to work on the bus, she makes a phone call to a special number and listens to someone read the newspaper.

At the office, where she's had special training, she uses a headset with two ear pieces: In one ear she hears computer commands as she clicks through the screen options. In the other, she listens to callers who dial the 211 social service help line for Western New York called "Central Referral Service," which is managed by Olmsted Center for Sight in downtown Buffalo.

She has tracked down services for quitting heroin, buying a first home, getting presents for kids at Christmas and free tax preparation.

"You have a good feeling when you go home because you're helping someone. You can't get bored because every call is different," she said. She was trained in computer skills by Olmsted, and for the past year, she has had the call center internship.

"I am able to do everything everyone else can do. It's excellent. It's just like knowing another language. It's just something you do to get by. It's just natural to me."

Howard is one of more than 40 students who get job training each year from Olmsted. Its call center, with 15 workers, is a mix of staff and students applying their new skills -- from basic email to the number-crunching Excel software.

The call center manages the 211 call system design to help match people's needs with social service agencies that fit.

Six years ago, her family moved to Lockport when her husband got a job managing the Pet Smart store. Howard, a native of Apalachin, near Binghamton, discovered Olmsted's job training programs by calling the State Commission for the Blind.

"It was hard work, but they're right there with you and helping you through it. I had to take business math. I had to take writing," she said.

Now her commute to Buffalo on a bus with multiple stops for other people with handicaps takes an hour or two, but, she said, it's worth it.

"Just to be a contributor the community and help people in a positive way," she said. "If it happens to brighten their day while I'm doing it, I'm happy."

?You started out with Olmsted's Statler Center hospitality training?

I thought it might be a nice combination with my customer service.

I worked at the Holiday Inn in Lockport. I worked at the front desk, and I was just begining to work as "guest champion" to handle complaints and to make their stay as pleasant as possible and encourage them to stay with us again.

I was the first visually impaired person in the United States to be given that position with the Holiday Inn. I loved it. I loved working with people.

>Can you describe a complaint you handled?

There was a gentleman We didn't bring them bananas. We didn't have them. He wrote a letter, and then I called him and worked it out: Let us know you're coming, and we'll make sure we have bananas. He responded very positively and said he would be staying with us in the future and appreciated that we cared.

I was there six months. I was very happy there. The owner decided to restructure. I was the last one hired, and I was one of the first to be let go. That came to an end in July 2010. So then it was back to looking for a job.

>So you went back to Olmsted for more training?

My computer skills have improved even more. I actually make confirmation phone calls for a doctor's office, which usually averages out to be, probably, 125 phone calls a day.

>You also answer the 211 calls?

Their database is so unbelievably huge. It's amazing how many agencies are out there to help people. So the community calls us, and they'll tell us their need, and we'll do the best they can to help them out with that need. Prisoner re-entry programs. People call us with mental health problems, looking for providers. We have a "code blue" around Western New York. It's when the temperatures where somebody can freeze to death outside. They'll call us on 211, and we'll tell them what shelter they can go to.

>How does your computer work?

Anything that the computer's doing, it will speak to me. It speaks to me and tells me wherever the mouse is on the screen. Then I have different key strokes that I use. I would use the arrow keys, and it would begin to tell me the titles of my emails. Click email, and it will read.

>You say you are into technology?

My current favorite is my iPhone. I can read email. I can send and receive text messages. Apple built in voiceover technology. So that's a high-five for Steve Jobs.

There's applications that will actually identify money. If I am on the bus, there's a GPS navigation tool. I can push a button and say, "Where am I?" It will identify where I am and tell me how far away I am from home and work.

>Can you describe how bad your sight is?

I could tell if a person's walking up to me. It may take me a minute to figure out who it is because I'm loosing my facial recognition. I use a cane for travel, but in my home and my workplace I don't. In places I'm familiar with, I don't need my cane to get around.

>Does it get discouraging, not being able to see?

If you think about it, everybody has a handicap. Nobody's perfect. Some people, you can see their handicap a little easier. Mine is more on the surface. It's there for you to see. I would consider it a handicap if you would see somebody that's different and you don't understand them and you don't understand what they can do.

Someone might not be a great speller. Someone might not be a great communicator.

Some people remain handicapped until they have their first cup of coffee in the morning. I kind of default to that one, too.

I lost my father and my mother-in-law to cancer. This is an inconvenience. It's not going to take my life. I kind of live by that. A lot of people would rather have what I have than what they have.

One of the greatest compliments I get at work or with my friends is they forget that I'm visually impaired. They'll say, "Did you see that?" Or, "Will you look at this?" I just laugh and tell them that it's a compliment.

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email