Sunday, May 27, 2007

Visually impaired graduate, an inspiration to others

A visitor recently entered the Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind on Dunn Avenue and told several people milling around in the cafeteria that he was looking for Peter Cerullo.

When none of the visually impaired people said anything, a few people snickered. A man with a gray ponytail and a cane made his way to a wall, grabbed a microphone and announced over the PA system: "Paging Peter Cerullo. You have a visitor. Peter Cerullo. You have a visitor."
Then he made a mock surprised expression and said, "Wait a minute, he's already here. I'm Peter Cerullo."

Such is Cerullo's humor. He makes people laugh all the time:

· at the center for the blind;

· at Daytona Beach Community College;

· on the city buses he uses to get around town;

· and as a frequent caller to radio talk shows where he's become known as "Blink."

Though visually impaired since birth, Cerullo's led an active life, working as a booking agent for several bands in the 1970s and early 1980s, including B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Fleetwood Mac. He also owned a restaurant in Atlantic City, and worked as a front-end manager for a chain of optical supply stores.

And while Cerullo can tell some lively stories about his days in rock 'n' roll, it's his infectious sense of humor and sincere caring for his fellow visually impaired people and students at DBCC that has won him the friendship and admiration of many.

"What an incredible person, probably the quickest wit I've ever known," said Suzanne Amsel of DBCC's student disability services. "His sense of humor has certainly boosted him over many hurdles he's encountered due to his visual impairment."

Despite his active past, Cerullo recently completed what he says is his biggest accomplishment, earning an Associate of Arts degree from DBCC. When he crossed the Ocean Center stage May 7, college President Kent Sharples presented Cerullo with his diploma, then immediately urged him to keep working and earn a bachelor's degree at the community college.

"I don't know about that," Cerullo says. "I'll have to talk to my counselor. But I'm 55. What am I going to do? Get another degree just to retire?"

Still, Cerullo has come a long way since he was born prematurely, weighing 2 pounds, 6 ounces. That led to him having retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP. He has always been extremely near-sighted, but his condition has worsened through the years.

After losing sight in his left eye and barely retaining sight in his right eye, Cerullo came to Daytona in 1997 to visit his brother's father-in-law and tour the Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind, which Cerullo says was listed as the third best such center in the nation.

"I immediately fell in love with the facility," Cerullo said.

He became a student in 1998, and now is an instructor, working the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift.
"They actually opened up a whole new world to me. What I didn't know was how to deal with blindness, getting across the street, getting around," Cerullo said.

With only limited vision in his right eye, Cerullo can only see the world in shapes and colors. But he said he uses his ears to bring everything into focus. "I listen, and I can see everything," he said.
Soon after he came to the center, he was working on computers. Then a longtime center supervisor, Debbie Armstrong, recommended he go back to college. Cerullo had completed some work in a small college in New Jersey, but left to pursue the entertainment business.

Cerullo agreed to try, and it changed his life, he said.

"I got drunk on school; I got addicted."

And it's an addiction he's actively tried to pass on to fellow visually impaired students.

"Pete came back to school for several reasons," Amsel said. "To get a degree, make a career change. But the underlying goal was to help others. He's always there to encourage other students, to help them conquer their fears, to give them hope."

"I feel like a Pied Piper" Cerullo said.

He and Amsel said he has convinced at least 40 other visually impaired people to attend school, many of whom have graduated with high honors and some of whom have earned master's degrees.

While Cerullo said he felt a lot of satisfaction when he received his diploma, he was even happier for his fellow students.

"It was wonderful; I was very proud of all my peers," he said.

Cerullo said he wishes people would reconsider how they view visually impaired people.
"It's more of a nuisance, not a handicap. I hate the word, 'handicap,' or 'disabled.' It's just a nuisance."

When Cerullo was nearing graduation, several teachers and fellow students wrote letters to Sharples hoping he would mention Cerullo in his commencement address. Sharples didn't, and Cerullo was glad.

"There were several others that really deserved it," he said.

But the letters are testament to the impact Cerullo has had on so many people.

"With Peter's help, the mathematics department has implemented lab activities for the classroom and the Academic Support Center to enhance the learning of the visually impaired students," mathematics chairman Marc Campbell wrote.

"His positive disposition must surely rub off on anyone lucky enough to become acquainted with him," fellow student Jim Bishop said.

"Rather than any recognition for rising above his own perceived obstacles, he is more pleased with inspiring a number of visually impaired residents at the Blind Center to take the plunge and go to DBCC," wrote John Petellat, a psychology instructor.

During his late-night shifts at the center, Cerullo comforts students with insomnia or problems that are keeping them awake, acting as an instructor, mentor and friend.

While his impairment has brought him a lot of joy through the years working with others, he said it was not a godsend.

"Absolutely not, but I've learned to live with it," he said.

And being around his students has given him something he's always pursued.

"I want to learn to be happy, and I've learned to do this with the students," Cerullo said.

The Cerullo File

NAME: Peter Cerullo

AGE: 55

OCCUPATION: Residential instructor, Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind.

EDUCATION: Associate of Arts degree, Daytona Beach Community College

VOLUNTEER: Fundraiser for St. Jude's Children Hospital and the Lions Club; Talking Book Library; Habitat for Humanity in Daytona Beach.

HOBBIES: Hiking, canoeing, and Beeper Ball, a baseball-like game for the visually impaired in which the ball beeps and there are only two bases.


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