Annalisa is a child development student at California State University, Sacramento State and volunteers at Wellspring. She greets guests at door, serves them food on the line and helps out in Wellspring’s back room, the Hub, where guests can come to get diapers, feminine hygiene products, shower supplies and their mail.
“I was greeting one day and I can’t remember what her name is,” Annalisa reminisced (recalling Cheryl, a guest at Wellspring). “She is visually impaired because she has a cane and she came up to and said how blessed she felt that I was here. She sang me a little song with my name – a word for each letter in it [A-N-N-A-L-I-S-A]. It just touched me. It made me smile and feel good and that’s what I come here to do and I love it.”
Originally from San Jose, Annalisa was born with Dandy Walker Malformation – a neurological impairment that affects every 1 in 2500 people.
There is a softball sized cyst like structure in the fourth ventricle of her brain which impairs her fine and gross motor skills including her coordination, balance and vision.
Annalisa is legally blind. She can perceive the rough outline of shapes and can read size 12 font if it is held up against her face.
Through physical therapy, Annalisa has overcome her motor skill impairment. She plays basketball for her dorm at Sacramento State and dances in her mom’s company, Changeling Dance Theatre, which makes dance accessible to people who are differently abled.
“I really like that creative movement,” Annalisa said. “A lot of people see the visual impairment before they see me. In dance, I like to tell people who I am through dance and that I can do anything.”
Annalisa has a guide dog named Walton who is three year old black lab. Walton has been her companion since 2014.
“The first day that I met Walton felt like the first day of the rest of my life,” Annalisa said. “We work really well together and he has already saved my life a few times. It would have been a close call with a few cars – getting hit. He has given me a level of confidence that I probably would never have had as a visually impaired person. Before, I would not have been able to come to school and live on my own or to be able to go out and travel a new bus route without someone helping me. He’s great. He is always there. He also just recognizes when I am having an off day or stressed out because of school. He tries to give me cuddles or let me pet him. Sometimes, he will bring over his toys and let me know that he wants me to play with him.”
Walton was bred by Guide Dogs for the Blind. He had to go through rigorous tests to become a guide dog — including an examination on how well he could avoid being distracted by squirrels and a test to see if he could resist eating a bacon hamburger offered to him by a stranger.
“When I was at guide school with him, he had to guide me past three piles of freshly cooked bacon that were sitting on the floor,” Annalisa said. “He did good!”
Walton went through a noise desensitization program so that loud noises like banging pots and pans and vacuum cleaners do not startle him.
“I play some musical instruments and he doesn’t care,” Annalisa said. “The guide dogs just have to be really easy going, not afraid of anything and really obedient.”
During the interview, Walton was laying by Annalisa.
“He is in a down-state right now,” she said. “If I walked out of the room right now and told him to stay, he would stay there until I told him to move. He could be there for an hour.”
A few minutes later, Riley, a puppy who is owned by Wellspring’s Volunteer Coordinator, Terri Tork, came charging into the room and started trying to play with Walton by licking his face.
Walton was tempted to play with Riley, but Annalisa said, “Walton stay! Stay! Stay! Don’t get up!”
Walton stayed, unmoving.
“In distracting situations, he has to fully listen and understand what I want him to do,” Annalisa said.
Walton eats a low-fat diet to preserve his lean physique. He indulges in carrots or apples as treats. Annalisa fed him a little piece of bacon last Christmas.
When Annalisa takes off Walton’s vest, he transforms from guide dog to a boisterous and loving pup. This is his persona when they are at home.
It is up to the handler’s discretion to let other people pet their guide dog and Annalisa lets guests pet Walton when they are coming through the door.
“It just seems to relax them to meet a smiling human and a cute, very intelligent doggy,” she said. “It’s nice for the kids to have a dog to pet and to learn about service dogs.”
Annalisa’s own schooling inspired her to become a teacher. Until she was in fifth grade, she was not taught anything from California’s Department of Education’s standard curriculum.
“I just remember doing a lot of connecting the dot worksheets and coloring books,” Annalisa said.
When she advanced to fifth grade, her teacher, Mrs. Stafford, was shocked that her previous teachers had not fueled Annalisa’s potential and hunger for learning. Mrs. Stafford teacher helped Annalisa learn through flash cards and different lecturing styles.
Annalisa worked her way through school and community college to arrive at Sacramento State, where has been studying to become a special education teacher — a profession inspired by her own struggle to access education.
“I know I could have done a lot more than these people expected me to,” Annalisa said. “I know that I want to go into these schools and challenge these kids to their fullest potential because there are a lot of people and doctors who say that they can’t do anything and that they are going to be couch potatoes their entire lives. I don’t think that is true. I believe that any kid can learn anything as long as you put your mind to it and come up with a new way of teaching. Some children might not be able to do math by doing worksheets. They might need little rocks to do five plus two and might need to count the rocks seven different ways before they get to that point where they can comprehend that. Teaching is a lot of thinking on your feet and I like that challenge. Kids are so grateful to have that knowledge and to use it in life. They really have a huge heart and these kids are just so amazing. That reward of that interaction just makes my heart smile.”
What have you learned as you’ve moved through life?
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and not worry about what other people think or think of me anymore,” Annalisa said. “Just to do what I think is right and just to do the best that I can do and not worry about being perfect or upsetting somebody. Also, to just do what I love and to always work my hardest because even if it might seem like a pain in the butt to study for three hours for an exam, but it’s going to pay off later. So just to work hard and not care about what life throws your way and to just think of it as a step to test you. Some people ask if I could take a pill to stop being visually impaired. I say no – this is who I am. I love being visually impaired. It’s the only thing that I know because I’ve been this way since birth. I have always known visual impairment. I don’t care if I can’t see. Who cares if it makes life more difficult? That’s just who I am and that is a challenge that I was given to try and overcome.”