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Judy in G major

By Carol Colmenares

(Versión en español de este artículo)

Master composer Schubert proclaimed G Major to be the sound of “everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love – in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.”

If her great-grandfather hadn't gotten sick, Judy's entire family would have arrived at the same time from Havana, Cuba, to Miami, USA. After Judy's visual diagnosis was confirmed, her parents made the decision to immigrate to the United States. However, neither the Caribbean Sea nor the Miami heat could fill the void of nostalgia and longing to reunite with family.

"At the age of 6, we returned to Cuba after living in the United States for 4 years. I was a very shy kid, since I already knew English, everyone wanted me to speak to them in English, and I was dying of embarrassment."

Childhood innocence kept Judy unaware of the political situation at the time. Later, Judy learned that in Miami, they were labeled as communists, and in Havana, they were considered spies. Taxi drivers, former colleagues of her father, refused to transport her and her mother to the school for the blind for fear of getting into trouble. They opted for a private tutor, but in reality, education took place in front of the piano with her grandmother, uncles, cousins, and friends, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and chicks. "I had a hen that I named Veronica, maybe because I missed my best friend who stayed in Miami."

It was also in Cuba where Judy found out she was blind. One day, playing in the park, she overheard some children whispering about her. "Memory is such an incredible thing. You remember certain things and not others, but I remember having that conversation with my mom the next day: why do kids say things about me? Why?" With a mother's infinite certainty, Mrs. Gisela affirmed: "Your eyes don't work as they should, but that doesn't mean you can't do whatever you set your mind to."

At that moment, Judy didn't know that she would carry this phrase with her throughout her life. "And I remember that at the age of seven, it didn't Have a big impact on me. OK, thanks. Bye. I'm going to play. I didn't know what it meant to be blind."

Shortly afterward, Judy and her family returned to the United States with a brief stay in Panama. Almost immediately, her parents found her a piano teacher since her relationship with music had grown stronger. Judy's parents bought and hid a grand piano for the Christmas holidays to surprise her. "This can only be done with a blind girl," Judy says, laughing. Her mother arranged the furniture in the living room in such a way that it blocked her path to the piano. Perhaps at that moment, Judy didn't appreciate the effort her parents had made, but when she reflects on the past, she remembers that her father worked from Monday to Saturday on a schedule that started at three in the morning at a salad distributor. "That was hard; my mom wasn't working, just my dad, and I can see the sacrifice my parents had to make to buy that piano."

The fruits of her musical education didn't take long to  reap. At twelve, she participated in a talent contest, Rising Stars, where she met a great mentor, Bonnie Kesling, who took them to perform at different venues and churches around Miami.

"I felt very nervous when I was singing on stage. But as time went on, I felt more comfortable, in my element. And that influenced a lot on how I interacted with other people... And then, over the years, feeling confident enough to advocate for my rights."

Judy always found support in her family and school to continue her studies, except for a teacher who thought Judy’s Advance Placement (AP) classes were a waste of time as she would not need them in life. All of  her other teachers and counselors encouraged her to continue onto higher education. When asked, Judy said she wanted to be a secretary or child psychologist. It was her vision teacher who advised her to study music therapy. Perhaps because it perfectly combined her passion for music and her desire to help others.

Collage of 5 pictures. Young Judy with a stuffed rabbit. Judy and her dad sit on a glider with her dog in front of them. Judy in a black graduation gown and her grandmother. Young Judy with her older brother. Young Judy is with her mom, kneeling next to her.
"I imagine that some people think that if you study music, you're having a lot of fun. It's actually so much work! For example, in a  typical semester I was taking 10, 11, or 12 classes, while other majors require 4 or 5. I had classes that had zero credits, but still, I had to go because they were part of my program." Also, since she was on a scholarship, she had to fulfill requirements such as participating in two choirs and attending nine recitals each semester..." and you know who would take me  to the recitals? Well, my grandmother!" Grandma Gisela, the pianist who ignited that fire in the first notes in Cuba, thoroughly enjoyed going to the record stores, taking her to the movies, or accompanying her granddaughter to concerts. At one point, in a community choir, they shared the stage. "I can't even describe the impact my grandmother has had on my life."

Judy completed her degree and almost immediately started her master's in visual rehabilitation. She recently obtained her certificate in Assistive Technology. Her internship at Lighthouse Central Florida, Orlando, led her to get her first job, where she worked for 16 years, until moving to Colorado Springs, where she works in the vocational rehabilitation division for the state of Colorado. "The greatest satisfaction at a professional level is being able to let blind or visually impaired people know that life goes on, that just because they can't see or see like before doesn't mean life is over, and that they can have rich and successful lives."

Judy gets emotional when she remembers her mother's words, which still resonate  and motivate her to this day. "But there are so many people who don't believe that, and when we talk about challenges and barriers, it's society and attitudes towards people with disabilities, and they don't know that people with disabilities are sometimes more resourceful, more flexible, more creative... we have to be because we have to find another way of doing things."

Judy's portrait wouldn't be complete if we didn't talk about her husband Casey, with whom she shares not only the last 20 years but also a sharp sense of humor, "he always says we met in rehab." And so Judy must explain that it was in '98 at the Visual Rehabilitation Center in Daytona. "I feel blessed to be able to share my life with my soulmate."

Collage of 3 pictures. Carol Colmenares and Judy smile and stand with guide dog Lyons beside Judy. Judy, her husband, and her parents on her wedding day. Judy in a white graduation gown with her dad.

Judy pauses and exclaims: "I haven't talked about my dogs!" Judy's life changed after having her first guide dog. "I remember thinking that guide dogs weren't for me because those poor dogs aren't allowed to have fun, they're always working, they're not even allowed to bark. What's that?" However, researching and asking questions, Judy decided to take this opportunity. "My first dog, Sachet, taught me what it was like to walk with a guide dog, to trust a guide dog, I felt like I was flying." Guide dogs give Judy the chance to move around freely in the world. "It may not seem like a big deal, but one day, my husband and I wanted to go to a restaurant and before Sachet, we would have taken  public transportation or a taxi. But we realized it was only a mile away, and we walked there with the help of a GPS and the dog. I knew nothing would happen to me, that I could do it, and that I was safe."

Judy lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, her second retired guide dog, Keats, Lyons, her new guide dog still in training, and a 15-year-old dog they adopted. "There's always some adventure with the three Labradors in my house."

More than an advisor for Dicapta, Judy has been a friend, and ally , and a true partner-in-crime from the beginning of our projects with the Department of Education. She’s reluctant to claim a favorite musical genre, as some songs she would have dismissed, have happily surprised her. Her free time is for the people she loves, and there's always, always room for dessert.