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No Holding Back
by Marlyn Margulis
Delanco, New Jersey
Rocco Fiorentino does not let a disability hold him back from achieving his goals. Although he's only 9, Rocco has been an activist for people with disabilities and a speaker on behalf of people who are visually impaired.
When he was 5, this Voorhees, New Jersey resident asked the New Jersey Legislature for funding to cover more braille instruction and teachers for blind and visually impaired children. His efforts snared an extra $300,000 to provide additional teachers and classes.
At birth, Rocco was four months premature and weighed one pound. His lungs were not fully developed and he had retinopathy of prematurity, a disorder of the retina. After their son had been treated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for six months, Tina and Rocco Fiorentino brought him home. "We brought home a child who could only see a little light out of one eye," noted his mother. "We were given no information or resources at the hospital. After getting over the initial shock, I started looking for support services. A year later, my husband suggested we start a foundation so that we could share the resources and services available to families of blind and visually impaired children."
The Fiorentinos established The Little Rock Foundation, an all-volunteer, nonprofit family resource center based within Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia. Their mission is to act as a resource center and help children reach their maximum potential in a friendly, caring, family oriented environment. "There are 2,100 blind and visually impaired children registered with the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired," Tina Fiorentino said. "Out of those, 100 of them are totally blind, including my son."
The foundation, which is funded by companies and individuals, awards annual scholarships to blind and visually impaired students for undergraduate programs at various colleges. It also offers a full scholarship, week-long camp program for visually impaired and blind children.
Rocco, who has read braille books from the New Jersey Library for the Blind and Handicapped since he was 5, accomplished an important goal. "Rocco offered to read some books in order to get a pet dog," Tina Fiorentino explained. "He decided on 20 books. We found him a pet dog, that he named 'Louis Braille with the curly tail,' after the man who founded the six-dot system of reading and writing for the blind."
From the time he was 18 months old until age 3, Rocco learned to use a computer with a specialized keyboard at a preschool center. He now receives braille materials from his elementary school, as do all New Jersey students in need of them.
Rocco and his mother have begun their own outreach program. They demonstrate the braillewriter and speak to elementary school children about being blind and the braille code. They also have given speeches about saving the lives of premature infants.
"Rocco and I have given a speech about his prematurity and how children are being helped by the March of Dimes campaign," said his mother.
Despite his busy schedule, Rocco has kept his focus on braille literacy. In 2004, he was one of 26 braille readers honored by the New Jersey Library for the Blind and Handicapped and the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. During the ceremony honoring braille readers, Rocco spoke about the importance of braille literacy in his life. "Reading braille is like putting a light inside of me," he said. "I move my fingers across the dots and a whole new world is open to me, full of opportunities. If I can't read braille, I'm just a kid with no future."
Rocco is also showing signs of being a musical prodigy. His parents calmed him down when he was a premature infant by placing tapes of classical and jazz music in his warming bed at the hospital. Later on, they played songs to help their son learn to identify body parts. Tina Fiorentino took her infant son to Mommy and Me music classes.
After his teacher at Signal Hill Elementary School, Voorhees played a Mozart recording, Rocco returned home and played the piece from memory. He studied piano for four years, plays drums and has composed three jazz tunes.
What inspires Rocco? "I get my inspiration to play the piano from listening to jazz musicians," noted this young man, who also sings. He has performed the national anthem, "God Bless America" and other tunes at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, a baseball stadium in Camden, New Jersey and at private events.
When the family went on a Caribbean cruise and Rocco tickled the ivories when the regular pianist was on break, he drew a crowd. He also played piano by the pool, at the piano bar and in one of the ship's lounges. Rocco played and sang "Margaritaville," "That Summer Wind" and "Walking After Midnight." Upon meeting Rocco, the captain said, "I heard you're taking over my ship."
Rocco's talent was recognized in the spring of 2005. He was named ambassador for the March of Dimes in Philadelphia. He was also invited to perform the national anthem in front of 3,500 people at the March of Dimes WalkAmerica fundraiser in Philadelphia.
Sal Dupree of Linwood, New Jersey is Rocco's voice teacher. "Rocco has perfect pitch, something less than one percent of people have," he said. "I think he has a photographic mind, through his ears. He has inner confidence, and his life revolves around music. To live in his world and accomplish what he has in nine years is unimaginable. He is a blessed and gifted child."
Rocco has some advice for blind children. "My suggestion to visually impaired or blind kids is don't let someone tell you you cannot do something because you can't see," he said. "I climbed to the top of a rock climbing wall when I was on the cruise ship, and I cannot see, but the guy on the ship didn't think I could do it, and I did."
The Little Rock Foundation
P.O. Box 138
Voorhees, NJ 08043
Web site: www.littlerockfoundation.org
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