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Laurel Highlands senior-to-be an inspiration

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Laurel Highlands senior T.J. Stewart recently traveled to New Jersey to get Rex, a seeing-eye dog.
Laurel Highlands senior T.J. Stewart uses a special camcorder-like device to hunt. In addition to the turkey, he has bagged an African sheep, a whitetail deer and a bull elk.

Laurel Highlands physical education instructor and former head football coach Jack Buehner said he gets excited when he has a chance to tell some stories about T.J. Stewart, who will be a senior this year.

“T.J. tells us amazing stories about hunting,” Buehner said, chuckling, “and they are fun to relate to others.”

Such as Stewart's hunting trip to a Texas ranch in April 2012 when, on the last night of the trip T.J. used a 30-06 rifle to shoot an African sheep. Or stories about hunting turkeys, including shooting one with an 11{ 12} beard. Or the whitetail deer he shot last year when he was 16. Or his story about shooting a bull elk.

“It's more than his stories,” Buehner added. “T.J. is such a pleasure to teach and be around.”

At Laurel Highlands, T.J., a highest honors student whose grade average was near 4.0 this past year, is a member of the school's percussion ensemble. He participates in winter and spring concerts and also taught himself to play the guitar.

And while many classmates may be struggling to develop post-secondary educational or vocational plans, T.J. already has his turkeys … er … ducks in a row. After graduation in 2014 Stewart will attend Slippery Rock University where he will study to become a teacher of the visually impaired.

“I attended a sports camp there and I would like to teach Braille and computers to the visually impaired,” he said, completely confident in his college plans.

This summer, T.J. will get a jump on college when he attends a school for the blind to participate in a college prep camp.

T.J. has been permanently blind since he was involved in an ATV accident on July 12, 2005.

“T.J. was riding on an ATV on his grandfather's farm when he swerved to avoid a dog,” said his mother, Annette. “The ATV landed on him and the handlebar went through his left eye and pushed back through his eye socket. His left eye was crushed and is totally gone. The optical nerve on his right side was severed and doctors removed the frontal lobe of his brain, that portion of the brain that deals with emotions, but this has not been a factor. T.J. beat the odds there.”

However, the Stewarts have not given up hope.

“My daughter was born in 2012 and her blood type matches T.J.'s,” Annette Stewart continued. “We saved my daughter's stem cells, and we're hopeful with more research her stem cells may be used some day to help him by regrowing the optical nerve for his right eye.”

In the meantime, nothing holds T.J. back, his mother added.

“T.J. refuses to let this get in his way,” she said. “He uses this as an inspiration and motivational tool. He achieves more than anyone else, and I told him, ‘You got me beat.'”

In Buehner's phys ed class, Stewart refuses to remain on the sidelines.

“T.J. is a true eye-opener,” Buehner said. “He is a young man who works hard every day to do even simple things to live a normal life. You think you are having a bad day and T.J. walks into a room, making you realize what you may be dealing with isn't so bad after all. He is kind and courteous and always has a smile. After a hard day, I picture T.J., who may not be as fortunate, and what I went through is not as much of an issue. When we are playing basketball, hockey or kickball, he says, ‘Coach, I want to play,' and other students in class go out there willing to help him. He is a treat for all of us, an inspiration for all of us. When life gets us down, do we put our head down or face issues as T.J. does?”

In academic classes, T.J. uses software programs that convert text to voice, explained Lori DiCenzo, director of special education and pupil services at Laurel Highlands.

“T.J. is amazing. His motivation is phenomenal,” DiCenzo said. “His attendance is good, and he is respectful and a pleasure to be around. He is bright and studious and has begun to learn to self-advocate, to ask questions about how something will affect him. He is not afraid to say, ‘I need help with certain technology.' T.J. is great company and great to be around. He has also learned to use his other senses to compensate for his loss of sight. For instance, when I'm walking down the hall, he recognizes my footsteps before he hears my voice.”

While on the hunting trip to Texas with his father, Tommy Stewart, and grandfather, Tom Stewart, T.J. used a specially made device created by his grandfather that combines a camcorder-like computer screen attached to the top of the scope on his rifle.

“I hold the rifle and someone behind me, my dad, stepdad, or grandfather watches the screen to see when the target animal appears on the screen and tells me when to shoot,” T.J. explained, noting that with his vision issues he cannot see what appears on the screen. “It's been a big success and everyone is there to help.”

While there may not be an exotic hunting trip on Stewart's calendar this summer, he was offered a choice to either go the beach or get a seeing-eye dog.

“It wasn't even a tough choice,” T.J. said, laughing. “Having a seeing-eye dog is something that will be with me the rest of my life so I decided to go with the dog. I can always go to the beach, and take the dog with me.”

T.J. began his non-beach, non-hunting vacation July 22 and finished Aug. 15, just in time to begin the new school year, with Seeing Eye Dog, Inc. in Morristown, N.J., where he was the youngest of 24 students to receive a seeing-eye dog.

Only two days after T.J. Stewart began classes with Seeing Eye Dog, Inc., “they selected a dog to best suit TJ's needs,” Annette Stewart said, and the selection was a 1-year old black lab named Rex.

And a bond has already been formed.

“Rex and I get along really great,” T.J. said. “Rex never leaves my side, and he sleeps in a tent next to my bed. He helps me a lot and is already very protective of me.”

In fact, after only several days working together, Rex demonstrated his protective nature when T.J. fell off a curb and scraped his leg. Rex's immediately reaction was to lick T.J.'s injury.

“The trainer said he had never seen a dog react like that, especially so quickly,” Annette Stewart related, adding that “when a nurse went to change T.J.'s dressing, Rex actually growled at the nurse, and this was within a few days after Rex and T.J. met. We were told that it is very unusual for a dog to be that protective so soon.”

Rex, however, is not considered a pet, Annette Stewart emphasized. When T.J. places the harness on Rex, Rex is in work mode. When T.J. releases the harness, Rex reverts to dog mode. At the same time, T.J. has also adjusted very quickly to using the harness. T.J. and Rex walk three miles per day and traveled to New York City to train in big-city, high-traffic conditions before returning home in time for Rex to accompany T.J. to Laurel Highlands High School for the beginning of the new academic year.

Eagerly anticipating learning how to work with and, if necessary, correct Rex, T.J. laughed when asked if Rex will also correct him when he makes a mistake.

“We'll just have to wait and see what happens,” he said, “But I'm sure everything will work out.”

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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