Greg Aikens, 29, has tackled many obstacles to obtain both educational and professional success, including winning the Learning Ally National Achievement Award.
Aikens is one of six people from across the United States who will receive $6,000 and travel to the Learning Ally’s National Gala celebration in Washington, D.C. this April.
At birth, Aikens was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, which, with the aid of medication, resulted in blurred sight until the age of 12.
In seventh grade, during a Christmas break from school, Aikens said he woke up one night with an “awful pain” in his eyes, and realized he could not see.
Aikens said the room only seemed completely dark, but when he touched a nearby lamp, he realized it was hot and giving off light.
The loss of sight was sooner than his family expected, said Aiken’s mother, Pam Kauffman, who lives in Gwinnett County.
The first year dealing with his blindness, Aikens said he had to be nudged “to get off his butt.”
Then Aikens realized by continuing to be a good student, “I am still going to do whatever I am going to do, I might just have to do it more creatively,” he said.
Kauffman said she does not remember ever having to push her son.
“He was really very self-motivated,” she said. “Greg naturally excelled at everything he did.”
The only time Kauffman recalls being scared about Aikens’ adventurous nature was when he traveled overseas by himself.
“I don’t think fear is a big obstacle for me,” Aikens said.
An international traveler
Originally from Loganville, Aikens joined the marching band in high school, and was even on the wrestling team for a short time.
On Sunday afternoon, at his home in Smyrna, a piano sat against one wall. Aikens said he took lessons as a kid, although the trumpet was his first instrument.
After high school, Aikens moved away for college, going to Wake Forest University in North Carolina to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Aikens said he originally wanted to create computer code to help the visually impaired, but realized what he cared most about was helping people.
In 2012, Aikens graduated from Vanderbilt University with a master’s degree in special education. He then earned a master’s of divinity in intercultural studies from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
While completing his seminary studies, Aikens did a monthlong internship in Central Asia to focus on the needs of disabled people in developing nations.
“It was a really powerful experience,” Aikens said.
The orphanage housed 350 children, many of whom had never encountered a blind adult before because impaired people are often hidden or institutionalized, Aikens said.
“It is very isolating,” he said.
Although there are many challenges for visually impaired people in the United States, in many places overseas, employment is not even an option for a blind person.
“People with disabilities are hidden with no rights at all,” Aikens said.
Now, Aikens is working with Empowering Through Integration, a nonprofit out of Cambridge, which hosts youth camps in Lebanon and Nicaragua.
“I am open to going anywhere,” Aikens said about his long-term goal to help disabled people.
The teacher, mentor
More than a year ago, Aikens moved to Cobb to teach visually impaired students at Russell Elementary School, off South Hurt Road, a couple of blocks from the home Aikens shares with his guide dog, Nikon.
Aikens said he really likes the area, but wishes there was better public trans-portation, which he relies on.
Because Aikens is blind, the shared impairment helps him better relate to the five students, who are learning computers skills and reading braille.
Although the children are disabled, Aikens said he pushes them to take on challenges.
“I don’t let them get away with as much” as a non-impaired teacher would, Aikens said. “I tell them, ‘No, you absolutely can.’”
The greatest joy, he said, is seeing the students tackling new skills and becoming more independent.
“It is just great to see the kids grow and learn over time,” Aikens said.
Aikens said his real passion is getting students ready for college and into the workplace, which is another link between himself and Learning Ally.
Learning Ally, which serves thousands of visually impaired and learning disabled children, offers more than 80,000 human-narrated textbooks and other titles that can be downloaded onto smartphones and tablets.
“Textbooks in audio format were crucial in helping me make the transition to working as a totally blind student,” Aikens said.