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Gaylen Kapperman
Gaylen Kapperman

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

January 17, 2007

Chicago Lighthouse honors
NIU professor with medal

DeKalb — Gaylen Kapperman’s lifelong devotion to advancing the education of people with blindness and visual impairments always has placed the Northern Illinois University professor in good company.

And now it’s official: Kapperman, longtime coordinator of the NIU College of Education’s Programs in Vision, is the winner of a Centennial Medal from the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired.

Representatives from the Lighthouse surprised Kapperman with the medal last month during its year-long campaign to celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2006. One hundred medals were awarded.

“When we took a look at who has had an impact, and who should be recognized, Kap was at the top of that list,” said Jim Kesteloot, president of the Lighthouse and a fellow Centennial Medal winner. “Sometimes you can have a national treasure in your midst and not be aware of it. Kap is really a national treasure.”

“Kap’s been a leader in the field in training teachers. He’s an innovative thinker,” added Mary Zabelski, director of educational services at the Lighthouse. “Over the years, he has probably taught thousands of teachers who became teachers of the visually impaired in our state.”

Kesteloot, Zabelski and Marla Garstka, a Lighthouse employee and NIU alumna who last year was named a Kohl/McCormick Early Childhood Teaching Award winner, placed the medal around Kapperman’s neck.

The presentation, made at a Department of Teaching and Learning staff meeting, left the typically talkative Kapperman speechless.

“I was very surprised. There are more-deserving people than I,” said Kapperman, who is legally blind himself.

“I’ve known the Chicago Lighthouse folks for years, and have always held them in high regard,” he added. “Jim Kesteloot is a terrific advocate for blind and visually impaired people. His heart is in the right place, and he does his darndest to advocate in the state and federal government. I really admire him for that. He cares, and he’s effective.”

Kapperman’s colleagues, of course, support his worthiness for the award.

“We all know he was very deserving,” said Toni Heinze, who recently retired from the NIU College of Education after nearly 30 years alongside Kapperman. “He has worked continuously, both for individuals and issues. He has advocated for people’s rights, from the availability of appropriate educational materials for students with visual impairments to career and vocational opportunities.”

Kapperman came to NIU in 1974 as an assistant professor in special education.

Since then, the former math and German teacher has attracted millions of dollars in grant funding to train teachers of students with visual impairments. His grants also allow him to stay on top of new technologies and to explore their additional and perhaps unintended applications.

He remains a tireless recruiter of new students to his program, an enthusiastic promoter of their successes and a passionate advocate for people with blindness and visual impairments, one of the qualities that endears him to the Chicago Lighthouse.

When late-1960s and early-1970s advances in medicine and technology began to improve the survival rates for children of low birth weight – survival often coupled with blindness and multiple other disabilities – organizations such as the Lighthouse focused on the similarly growing need for certified teachers.

“Kap was at the root of training teachers in those early days to meet the needs of kids who are blind,” Kesteloot said.

In 2003, a national leader in education and rehabilitation came to the Chicago Lighthouse to address members of the staff, the strategic planning committee and the board of advisers, which includes Kapperman.

“He identified some major national issues we should be aware of when creating a five-year plan, and the No. 1 issue was certified, trained teachers. We have a major national shortage that is going to have a huge impact on the quality of education,” Kesteloot said, “and there was Kap, as always, in the middle of it, recruiting teachers to his innovative programs and innovative classes.”

Kapperman also played another critical role in the Lighthouse’s history.

The Illinois Instructional Materials Center long has provided Braille and large-print books to children with visual impairments and blindness. The books were the same texts of any and all topics provided to their sighted classmates.

But when parents began complaining a few years ago that their children were not getting books and that the program was eroding, the Lighthouse stepped forward with an offer to manage the center.

“Gaylen was very helpful in writing letters, contacting his colleagues and helping us give testimony about why that would be a good thing for the children of Illinois,” said Zabelski, who also is president of the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments.

“Any time there’s an issue that affects children with blindness or visual impairments, he will lead the charge with the teachers. He’s the first one there rallying the troops, making sure people contact their legislators, their constituents or the State Board of Education. Now that the IIMC is located at the Lighthouse, he’s helped us ask for additional funding to make it a much better materials center with more technology and more books.”

“The teachers Kap trained helped to pull that off,” Kesteloot said. “The right thing might not have happened if Kap was not as involved or concerned.”

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