For someone with a disability, that can be a powerful phrase. Emilio was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Gowanus Houses. Although he experienced vision impairments since birth, he did not learn he was legally blind until he was eight years old. He can see the outlines of objects, colors and shapes, but is not able to gauge distance. Objects are closer than they appear to him, and distance appears to be further, longer than it is. Though his family didn’t have the resources to access the supports and extra help he needed to pursue higher education in his youth, he feels fortunate to have had many advantages, including summer day camps funded through Helen Keller Services for the Blind and a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit the White House when he was 12.
Growing up, Emilio loved listening to the radio and watching television and cartoons and dreamed of a career in media. He was always told, “You can’t because of your sight.” He listened, heard the message loud and clear, and steered away. Upon graduating high school, he went to work as a vendor, stocking vending machines, cafes and snack bars across the city. He continued to live with family for more than a decade, as he could never quite afford an apartment on his own. When Breaking Ground’s first new construction residence, The Schermerhorn, was marketed through the affordable housing lottery, Emilio applied and was among the first residents to move in when the building opened in 2009. This was the first time living on his own and signing a lease, and Emilio remembers it as an important moment of gaining independence, at thirty years old. He was not initially involved with social services at The Schermerhorn, as he was employed and stable. But when he lost his job in 2011, he connected with our onsite service partner, The Actors Fund, and worked closely with case management to ensure he could remain stable in housing and plan for the future.