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Cairo man overcomes vision loss to pursue social work degree

In May 2018, Feliciano Francisco-Gonzalez graduated from Thomas University with a Bachelor of Social Work degree.

Before enrolling at TU in January 2017, Francisco-Gonzalez studied at other schools and tried other majors.

“I was lost,” he said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

For a while Francisco-Gonzalez thought he wanted to be a teacher. Then he considered becoming an occupational therapist until a professor told him that his disability could be a safety issue. (Francisco-Gonzalez is legally blind.) For a while he attended a large university but found the environment wasn’t a good fit.

Then his sister suggested that he consider social work. It seemed like a great fit for Francisco-Gonzalez’s caring personality and his desire to link people with the services they need.

“When I started in social work, I realized that I had found my niche,” he said.

Francisco-Gonzalez lives in Cairo and graduated from Cairo High School in 2007. For eight years he worked as a sales associate in the paint department at the Cairo Walmart. His department manager was amazed that Francisco-Gonzalez never let his visual impairment get in the way of doing his job. Francisco-Gonzalez was able to mix paint, put up freight and keep the department organized.

“He picked up everything real fast,” said Inita Haynes, Francisco-Gonzalez’s supervisor and Manager of the Hardware Department at the Cairo Walmart. “He never said what he can’t do. He’s going to do it any way. When he does it, he does it well.”

Haynes said she was impressed by Francisco-Gonzalez’s drive to improve himself.

“I want him to follow his dream, and I know he can become whatever he wants to be,” she said. “He wanted to become somebody, and he wanted to go back to school. I kept pushing him to do it because he’s a very smart person.”

Francisco-Gonzalez was born with Stargardt's Disease, a form of macular dystrophy that severely reduced his vision when he was a child. Now he uses technology to make text and images larger so that he can see them.

As a student at TU, Francisco-Gonzalez has found professors willing to work with him so that he can overcome any barriers that might hinder him from obtaining his BSW. Professors would record lectures so that he could listen to them later and provide him with files of their lecture notes so that he could increase the text to a readable size.

“They are always willing to accommodate me and always push me along when I think I can’t do it,” he said about his professors.

He also worked with Dr. Pauline Patrick, TU’s Director of Disability Services, who helped enable Francisco-Gonzalez to accomplish his classwork. He also credits all the TU professors who taught him for their willingness to accommodate his low vision, especially social work professors Bill Milford and Dr. Susan Fowler.

“There’s just this sense that TU professors really care about you, and they want you to succeed,” he said. “I see that in every professor whose class I’ve taken here. Your professors are walking with you, not holding your hand but working with you and really encouraging you.”

Bill Milford, Chair of the TU Division of Social Work, said, “Felix is the kind of student that makes teaching a pleasure. He comes by for office hours to discuss items of interest posted during the week and demonstrates his mastery of the concepts by testing them out in his own life. His attention to detail, ability to explore questions in a non-judgmental fashion, and great sense of humor make him an awesome social worker.  Being around students like him, who experience such wonderful personal and professional growth during their time at Thomas University, help me to feel continually energized as an instructor.”

Outside of TU he also worked with Carlotta Hudson, a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, at Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. Hudson, who’s also a TU alumna, made such a difference for Francisco-Gonzalez that now he’s considering the possibility of eventually working with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.

“Georgia Vocational Rehab has made a big impact in my life, and I want to give back,” he said.

In the spring of 2018 Francisco-Gonzalez completed a field placement by working with Dan Salveter, a licensed clinical social worker at Bishop Hall Charter School.

“I like working with him because he’s very detailed,” Francisco-Gonzalez said. “Mr. Salveter has been a great mentor. He’s really good at telling me what I need to do to improve and what I’m doing well. He provides great feedback.”

Each week Francisco-Gonzalez meets with Bishop Hall students ranging from 8th-graders through 12th-graders to discuss their progress toward graduating high school.

“If they’re facing obstacles, we come up with a plan to help them graduate,” he said. “If they’re dealing with personal issues, we help connect them with the services they need.”

Francisco-Gonzalez also leads the students in various exercises to emphasize social skills development. A particular game he plays with his students is “the werewolf game.” This game teaches students that every action they make affects their peers in a positive or negative way.  

“It’s a game, but at the same time it’s teaching them that their decisions dictate what happens,” he explained.

After graduating, Francisco-Gonzalez has decided to continue his social work education by pursuing a master’s degree in the field.

Education that Engages... Empowers... TRANSFORMS

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