Brian Tom is the CEO and founder of the non-profit organization BLINDSTART of America; he has utilized both the mental and physical hardships in his life to fuel him to help others in his community. In his early 20s, he developed Glaucoma, a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve; due to this, he underwent a series of 20 eye surgeries throughout the next 15 years. Currently, he has lost complete sight in his left eye, and his right eye is badly damaged and blurred. It was through this arduous journey that he found his passion in public speaking, volunteer service, and leadership.
In 2006, Mr. Tom founded a non-profit organization, BLINDSTART, to help other visually-impaired athletes in a team-building, water-sport: dragon boating. Dragon boating is a human-powered watercraft that is self-propelled by a team of 20 paddlers who follow the cadence of the caller’s drum. BLINDSTART became the first blind dragon boat racing team to compete in the 2007 Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival. The team consisted of blind, deaf, visually impaired, or blind-folded sighted paddlers. They practiced one to two times a week at Mother’s Beach in Long Beach, year-round, to prepare for future races. It was especially difficult for the visually-impaired paddlers, since the timing of strokes needed to be in perfect sync with the caller’s cadence. When asked about what the biggest challenge BLINDSTART overcame was, Mr. Tom answered “The BLINDSTART team evolved greatly over the years. We first started off as an inclusive team that included anyone with visual disability. Over time and with practice, we started to beat the able-bodied in timed trials. It wasn’t about inclusion anymore; it was a competition. As we started to gain more and more paddlers and increase in popularity, we attracted deaf paddlers as well. The main challenge we overcame was that we needed to be extremely audible for our blind paddlers, while still being extremely visual for our deaf paddlers. Our callers needed to find a balance between those two.”
In 2018, the BLINDSTART Dragon Boat Team represented the United States of America in the International Dragonboat Festival, which was hosted in Szeged, Hungary. They were the first American team to compete in the Adaptive Paddler Crew division, and became the national champions of that division. The next step was to compete in Budapest, Hungary. However, Mr. Tom stated, “Unfortunately, there weren’t enough competitors in the adaptive division to compete. It wasn’t a full competition. That is why I want to create a more inclusive dragon boating community to have equal opportunity for both adaptive paddlers and able-bodied.”
Brian Tom did not stop at just helping visually-impaired athletes. He wanted to give back to his alumni-school, Whitney High School, by providing a unique opportunity to the high schoolers. In November of 2019, he kickstarted the winter session of his bi-annual fellowship: the True Vision internship. This internship has been offered by himself and California Educational Centers since 1995. When asked why he continuously offered such a great opportunity to high school students, he stated “Life is more than simply being able to read the ‘big E’ on a vision chart. It is about what you are able to read in yourself and others. That can only be done through fulfilling experiences in education, business, and community service. 3 months after starting my business, California Educational Centers, I asked myself, how can we help these highschoolers beyond what they learn in school?
Six highschool interns from Whitney High School were chosen, through a resume and interview process, to assist Brian Tom in a variety of ways. The focuses include videography, photography, writing e-books, and marketing. Two of the interns, Justin Ji, a sophomore, and Maya Alverez-Harmon, a junior, have been chosen as Math Olympiad coaches, and are working with the nearby elementary school, Wittmann Elementary School, weekly to train a team of young students. “As a Math Olympiad coach, I review the curriculum, look for areas of improvements that students have, and create alternate solutions to problems to help students understand in a different way. I also grade papers and input scores,” Justin says, in an interview. Brian Tom’s Math Olympiad team have ranked in the top 10% of the nation in the past, so the interns are currently working diligently to teach the students the techniques and formulas needed to ace the test. “I believe internships are important for high school students because they give students a chance to work in a professional environment, with a mentor to guide them,” Justin says when asked why he applied for this internship.
The remaining three interns, myself, Sophia Chuesakul-Linville, and Siddhant Watwani work hand-in-hand directly with Brian Tom, to assist him in any way possible. I am currently working with Mr. Tom to write an e-book of life lessons to pass on to his daughter, in case he is unable to, due to his medical problems. The process of writing the e-book is altered, compared to traditional methods, to better fit Mr. Tom’s disability. Since he is most comfortable with voicing his thoughts, compared to writing or typing, he voice records chapter by chapter of the book, recording 2-3 voice memos a week, detailing exact memories and life lessons. Then, I listen to the voice recordings and transcribe his words into writing, revising and editing each sentence to flow naturally. The e-book will be released onto Amazon this year.
Sophia, however, works in a different area of focus. When asked what her interning responsibilities included, she responded: “As a CEC intern, I mainly deal with designs, like photography, posters, and banners.” She believes internships are important for highschoolers because “students gain all kinds of experience for the career field they are planning or are interested in pursuing, which is a good way to get started for their future.”
Siddant Watwani has “learned about what it takes to manage a business, and specifically, an educational institution, as [he] have worked alongside with the owner and CEO of the company, Mr. Tom. In addition, [he] has gained valuable skills in educating others, as [he] has acted as an assistant tutor. [He] has really been pushed to [his] limits as a California Educational Centers intern and learned something new every time. Recently, [he] tutored a group of students on [his] own, something [he] never thought [he] would be able to do on [his] own.” He believes internships are crucial to high schoolers because “they teach us how to be independent and responsible, and they give us valuable skills that will stick with us throughout our careers and our lives.”
Further inquiries about California Educational Centers can be sent to ochanco@CECtutoring.com or through phone: (562) 860-7633.
Stella Hong, Grade 11
Gretchen Whitney High School