Legally blind girl gets behind wheel with classmates’ help

SNOHOMISH — The idea, as crazy as it seemed, percolated in Brooklyn Dana’s brain for weeks.

It began as a notion, a vague good intention. It became a frequent thought and blossomed into a goal that no longer seemed absurd.

The final connection — the breakthrough moment when the impossible suddenly seemed possible — occurred during a conversation with lab mate Adrian Caple in a sixth-period Advanced Molecular Biology class in mid-October.

The pair couldn’t suppress their glee. They raced up two flights of stairs at Glacier Peak High School and barged into an American Government law class taught by John Bonner. In Mr. Bonner, they figured they had a kindred spirit, a willing co-conspirator and man of action.

They convinced him to step into the hallway to hear them out.

The seniors explained that they wanted to help Ali Steenis, a legally blind classmate, fulfill a dream of driving a car and they had devised the framework of a plan to make it happen.

And they wanted it to be a surprise.

On her 18th birthday Saturday, after darkness fell over the high school parking lot, Ali gripped the steering wheel of a Ford Taurus, pressed her foot on the accelerator and felt the sensation of driving.

“The driving part was really amazing,” said an emotional Ali, who giggled and wiped away tears of gratitude after her 15-minute experience was over.

Even better than sitting behind the wheel was knowing so many fellow students, faculty members and even strangers teamed up to make it happen.

“It’s surreal and really humbling,” she said.

Her route was a specially designed course of Christmas lights and traffic barrier reflectors. It was built by a small army of volunteers with rolls of duct tape, a bank of generators and long vines of electric cords. In a chilly rain, with temperatures barely above freezing, they created a corridor of tiny bright bulbs silhouetted against the night sky to make a luminous path that Ali’s fading eyes could perceive.

In gaps where the lights didn’t reach, throngs swarmed to mark the way with electric candles. Among a crowd of about 100 mostly young people, collective cheers erupted as Ali navigated her first turn, on the way to three laps around the course.

The part she liked best? “Hitting the gas.”

Family, faculty and classmates all were in on the secret. Ali is a young woman respected for the dignity with which she chooses to approach life’s challenges and the compassion she shows toward others.

On Saturday, it was her classmates’ turn to reciprocate her kindness.

“It’s incredible these kids would do this for Ali,” her father, Ken Steenis, said. “It’s so humbling to just be in a position where a community wants to wrap their arms around her and what she is all about.”

Ali Steenis was five months old when the Sears photographer noticed she wasn’t tracking objects others her age did when getting their portraits taken. She suggested to her parents they have her eyes checked.

The family soon learned that Ali had a severe visual impairment.

She had little trouble with the big print in books in elementary school and ran around the playground in dark glasses at recess. During the summer, her parents would bring out a large whiffle ball and a giant orange plastic bat. Their backyard was lined with Christmas lights that served as base paths. Ken Steenis would toss pitches from four feet away and duck for cover to protect himself from Ali’s line drives.

In middle school, the print became smaller and life got harder.

Her vision grew significantly worse in high school. She had to re-learn Braille over the past 18 months. Last summer, she began using a guide dog.

In October, doctors finally could put a label on her condition. Ali was diagnosed with Lebers Amaurosis, a rare genetic eye disorder of the retina that affects roughly three in 100,000 newborns. There is no miracle remedy to regain the vision her hazel eyes have lost, but Ali hopes she can help others.

These days, she and her parents are part of an Oregon Health &Science University research project, providing DNA to the Casey Eye Institute that could help researchers confronting the disorder.

Her family resolved early on that Ali would live as normal a life as they could provide.

She was mainstreamed in Snohomish School District classrooms and learned to ride horses at a young age.

She has maintained a 3.92 grade point in high school and scored an impressive 1910 on her SAT exams — a score high enough to earn her entry into many top colleges.

Her dad marvels at her knowledge when her family watches “Jeopardy!”

“God blessed her with a sponge brain,” Ken Steenis said. “She can store information like nobody’s business.”

The barn has become her sanctuary. In September, Ali finished third among 40 riders at the 4-H State Fair dressage competition.

All those hours working with Watchman, a Hanoverian the family leases, paid off. Watchman understands her. He wants to keep her safe and to please her. Their relationship has reached the point where the casual observer might not notice that Ali is blind.

Such was the case for Caple last year when he sat near her in U.S. History class. He figured Ali wore dark glasses because her eyes were sensitive to light. It didn’t dawn on him that she couldn’t see.

English teacher Carolyn Coombs said Ali chooses to see the world through a positive light, and, in doing so, inspires her classmates.

“Ali is a fearlessly independent and fearlessly compassionate person,” Coombs said.

Those sentiments come across in a blog Ali keeps. It’s very name — — speaks to her unwillingness to let her condition define her life.

In a recent post, after people raised money for some of her technology needs, Ali wrote: “It is very difficult for me to receive blessings and attention. I would much rather give to others. It is a process to learn to receive for me and I find myself struggling at times.”

After her ride through the Glacier Peak parking lot Saturday evening, Ali went to dinner with some of her closest friends.

Just like last year, she told them she didn’t want presents. Instead, she asked them to bring a few bucks to hand out randomly to people who seemed down on their luck in downtown Seattle. When Ali’s drive was over, classmate Chloe Johnson handed her a donation jar stuffed with cash. Students also collected clothes for the homeless.

Those who know her say her loss of sight has made Ali an extraordinary listener.

Perhaps some of that gift rubbed off on Dana.

The pair was at a club meeting in September when teachers Bonner and Coombs posed a simple question: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

The answers were all over the map. Some students said they would start businesses they hoped would make lots of money. Dana said she would introduce algae into nut bars for healthy weight gain.

Ali said she would be happy just to feel what it is like to drive.

The room grew silent for a moment as her classmates contemplated something they all took for granted.

At a homecoming assembly Oct. 8, Ali and Dana sat next to each other. Small bright lights beneath little glass jars lined the floor of the darkened gymnasium, marking the path for the homecoming court.

“Wow, that looks so pretty,” Ali told her friend.

It was a revelation Dana stored in her memory bank: Ali could see light in the dark.

A week later, Dana and Caple were in their biotechnology class. The conversation among the lab group eventually drifted toward the upcoming homecoming dance, and where would be the best place to get photos taken afterward?

Caple suggested a go-kart course. He figured his classmates would look sharp in suits and ties and dresses while behind the wheels of the low-to-the-ground motor vehicles. They talked about the lights that lined the course.

That was the moment they realized they could make a course for Ali, that she could experience what it’s like to drive.

Eventually, they approached assistant principal Lance Peters. Their reasoning was simple, Dana said. “He thinks how you can make it work, not how it is not going to work.”

The adults at the high school told them it would be up to them to make it happen.

And they did.

They secured use of a driver’s education car, one with a companion brake and accelerator on the passenger side. Glenn Dunbar, a driver’s education teacher, volunteered to accompany Ali.

Dana went to hardware stores, asking them to donate lights.

She hit the jackpot at the Home Depot in south Everett. An assistant manager there, Shane Johnson, mentioned what the students wanted to do. His co-workers thought it was a great idea.

“Everybody was touched and wanted to see what they could do to volunteer,” said Megan Manning, the store’s operations manager.

Four volunteers arrived Saturday with lights, generators, extension cords and more.

Pumbing supervisor Jeff Bryson said Ali’s story touched him personally. His sister has a similar condition.

The Glacier Peak senior class rallied behind the idea, too.

Bonner credits Dana and Caple with pulling it off, saying they reflect a remarkably tight-knit class.

“That’s what they do,” he said. “They look out for each other like I have never seen before. You have to see it to believe it. It just captures the essence of this class.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446,

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