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Blind tutor teaches sighted students to read

A blind Charlottean who has earned national honors for teaching kids to read has finally won community recognition in his hometown.

Jeffrey Balek, 36, who has been featured in People magazine and on “The Dr. Oz Show,” has been presented with the Nish Jamgotch Jr. Humanitarian Award, an honor given annually to Mecklenburg County residents who “enhance the survival, dignity and well-being of humankind.”

“I devised this award specifically to honor a person who elevates the quality of life in our community, in a very innovative way,” Jamgotch said at the award ceremony, “and I don’t know of anyone who has done this better.”

Balek is legally blind but reads from books written in braille to help at-risk children at Nation’s Ford Elementary improve their literacy skills. He’s part of the Y Readers program, an initiative of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte that serves kids in kindergarten through third grade. It is currently offered at eight CMS schools and serves 692 children.

The honor comes with a $6,000 award, which Balek promptly announced he wanted to share with the Y Readers program. The money will go toward buying preschool and nursery books.

Balek, who is also the drummer in his family’s band Caution Blind Driver, says it never crossed his mind that a blind man couldn’t volunteer to help sighted kids.

“I had been helping blind kids learn to read and I didn’t imagine it would be any tougher to help sighted kids,” said Balek. “I just love helping kids and it’s something I always intend to do.”

The biggest difference between the blind and sighted children, he says, “is the sighted kids ask me questions about blindness.”

Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas said Balek’s work takes on added significance given a Harvard study that showed low income children in Charlotte are less likely to rise out of poverty than in other large cities. The study has given rise to a growing number of community efforts to improve literacy among low income children.

Collier said the Jamgotch Jr. Humanitarian Award aims to celebrate people like Balek whose work has received little public recognition.

“Nothing against those who get a lot of headlines and a lot of public acknowledgment, but Nish (Jamgotch Jr.) was looking for something different. He wanted to lift up a different type of achievement…Jeff has overcome his own barriers to find an innovative way to improve literacy skills. He has also created a bridge across socioeconomic and racial boundaries, and worked to inspire children who need greater role models in their lives.”

Previous Jamgotch Jr. Humanitarian Award winners include Thereasea Elder, a public health pioneer who was among the first to integrate health care in the Charlotte region, and Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures and an advocate for education opportunities for undocumented youth.

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