by Robert Burkhardt
“Thank you. I think of him every day; he is why I teach today.” Monique’s response to the selfie of Daniel and me piqued my curiosity; I called to learn more.
Monique Navarro entered Eagle Rock School (ERS) twenty years ago, an angry teenager prone to volcanic outbursts. “For me it was my past; where I came from anger was an easier emotion.” She left for a while after her grandmother passed away; the campus seemed somehow calmer. Her return to ERS was problematic because of the unresolved truculence. “Living in respectful harmony” is a cardinal virtue at ERS, and it was far from certain that Monique would embrace restraint.
Then the phone rang. Estes Park Elementary School (EPES) teacher Caroline Evans asked for help in a difficult situation. A new second grade student, Daniel Varela, recently arrived from Mexico, was blind, spoke no English, and couldn’t read Braille. Might we have an ERS student who could work with him? We telephoned Monique to invite her return, subject to a condition: make Daniel a star. You can guess the rest—it was a match made in heaven.
“On the first day Miss Evans left me alone with Daniel, which I thought was crazy. He gave me a tour of the school; I was amazed. This six-year old was walking confidently, without a cane, completely at home in those confusing corridors. At the pool area…” Here Monique’s voice dissolved and she teared up. After a pause, “At the pool area I was freaked out, I thought he would fall in. He stood right on the edge and went ‘shhhhh’ as the kids dived in. He knew that, he knew more than me, and I melted for him. Nobody at EPES really spoke fluent Spanish; I understood a little, but not well. It was a journey for both of us. Miss Evans was doing math but couldn’t work individually with Daniel. I thought of dice, and that helped. He felt the numbers and told me the answers. I worked with him for the rest of that school year, about four months. He came to my graduation from Eagle Rock; seeing his face is something I don’t know how to explain. To see he was proud of me, and I had done something important. It meant so much.”
Today Monique Navarro runs the after school program at Cowell Elementary School in Denver. Her activities encompass art, sewing, team-building, trust exercises she learned at ERS, traveling to different lands through food, dinosaurs, economics (loans, counting money, starting a business), and more. “Their interests are important to me. I work in a community where most parents are immigrants, where deportation is an issue. Education is so important to them…” Again emotion rises in Monique, and again she pauses. “I look back at Daniel and his struggle and how he became so strong; that gets to me. I learned from him there is nothing you can’t do. Every day kids say ‘I can’t do this’ and I remember Daniel, no cane, taking me around EPES; he did it. There’s no way to say ‘I can’t do it.’ There is no challenge too hard to overcome. He overcame so many struggles. It grew on me, and Eagle Rock helped. We were part of the Estes community because of ERS. I loved going there and helping. I still think of Miss Evans all the time.”
Daniel remembers Monique: “I gave her a tour of the school. At first we were both stubborn and I was confused. She gave me a talking watch so I would know what time it was. It was really cool and helped tremendously with a part of my life. It was awesome—she sat down and read books to me, and that’s when I was introduced to Braille. At those moments in life, when you don’t know English well and your sight is bad, you’re lost. Monique appeared in this hard moment to encourage me and make me a better person. She was teaching me how to use a cane, but I was really stubborn and it didn’t kick in—I didn’t want to use the cane. We became really good friends. She was going to graduate and there were no special vision teachers to teach me Braille. There was nothing there—the only help at that time was Monique. She helped me a lot.”
Three years ago Daniel Varela opened Seeing Hands Massage in The Old Church Shops on West Elkhorn. His specialty is neuromuscular massage with body insight, to relieve and correct nerve impingements and overstretched muscles. “My eyes are at my fingertips. I’m not looking at skin—I can’t—so I see through my hands. It’s a big challenge, but I lost one sense and gained another—hearing and touch are vital for those with visual impairment.” He also offers weight loss treatment, appetite control, Swedish massage, pregnancy massage and aromatherapy massage, among other therapies.
Daniel earned his U.S. citizenship last year; he travels periodically to Texas, Arizona and anyplace where at least twenty people will gather for the touch of his healing hands. Tomorrow, July 23, he will be in Keystone, CO, with No Barriers USA to accompany blind and disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on a six-mile hike with 2000’ elevation gain.
Daniel is not only a masseur. He and his fiancé Maria clean homes, businesses, yards, vacation rentals, restaurants and offices. They mow lawns in summer and provide snow removal in winter. Daniel uses an iPhone 6S+, modified for the visually impaired, to keep track of his obligations, and he also repairs computers, cleaning up virus-infected software. He has plans to open additional businesses in the future. “I’m an example for a lot of people who didn’t take the right path—I work double, harder than most. Life is challenging, and no-one is going to do things for you. You never reach the top of the mountain because you’re always climbing, and there’s always someplace higher up to go. When you pursue something you don’t stop. If you fail, you get up again and try harder.”
Monique Navarro and Daniel Varela represent the best of America. They work hard and serve others cheerfully, refusing despair and not accepting defeat. We need more like them.
Next column: End of an era.
Estes. Park Nice town. Nice people.