The summer has been jam-packed for Hannah Christenson as she helps create and manage opportunities to enrich the lives of students who are blind or visually impaired. She and her team recently guided middle and high schoolers through Envision’s Level Up Program. The high school program was June 18-24 at Wichita State University while the middle school program was July 10-14 at Butler Community College’s El Dorado campus.
These events are a point of progress and achievements for those involved as well as a safe place for youth to be around others who share their same strengths and life challenges.
“We are driven to find even more ways to ensure the brightest possible future for youth with visual impairments,” Christenson says.
The goal of the Level Up Program is to equip students who are blind or visually impaired with skills that will help them succeed. The high school program focuses on academic, professional and interpersonal skills that will help students succeed in college or career and beyond. The middle school Level Up Program gives students access to critical mentorships and equips them with skills to build independence through an emphasis on increasing technological literacy and assistive technology skills.
The program has grown since 2006 to serve more than 500 blind or visually impaired students from across the United States.
“Level Up is a fully comprehensive approach to education,” Christenson says. “We are exploring and pushing the students and setting high expectations because we know they are capable of achieving them.”
Level Up High School
The 2023 high school conference attracted 33 students including 11 from Texas and six from Delaware. Christenson says the conference not only connects students who are blind or visually impaired with resources that will help them in the future but also helps foster relationships among people who face similar challenges in life.
More than 50 hours of hands-on sessions led by various industry professionals were included in the high school conference this year. Sessions focused on assistive technology training, money management, cyber security and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Christenson says career planning is a big emphasis during the high school conference. The nine core areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum are covered during the weeklong event as well.
“They are getting all aspects of career exploration, life skills and building a community with one another,” Christenson says.
The program kicked off with an expressive arts experience through the Envision Arts Gallery. Participants learned self-expression, critical thinking, discovery and exploration. Envision staff, peers, educators and community professionals provided support during the week of the conference.
As the conference concluded, students attended a college and career expo.
“We provide inspiration for the students and help them gain exposure to what potential is out there,” Christenson says.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, Meritrust Credit Union, Textron Aviation, T-Mobile and Wichita State University were among the employers who participated in the career expo. High Touch Technologies was the presenting sponsor for this year’s event.
Christenson says having businesses participate is mutually beneficial. Employers are exposed to potential employees and learn more about ways to be more inclusive. Students learn more about professional opportunities and gain access to reputable companies in the community. Students also learn about college programs that will help prepare them for the workforce as well as internship opportunities that will give them real-world experience.
Additionally, participants have professional headshots taken to use on a LinkedIn profile or their resume. “This does give them a head start so they can start exploring those career opportunities,” Christenson says.
Level Up Middle School
Meanwhile, 10 students from three states participated in the middle school conference and they weren’t short on activities either.
Participants took part in technology labs where they learned keyword skills and navigation. Students also engaged in activities through the Butler Community College Redler Institute of Culinary Arts, named after Wichita restaurateur Scott Redler.
“This is the launching pad for them to be successful in the high school program,” Christenson says of the middle school Level Up Program. “We’re laying a foundation for their technology skills for when they start the high school and career readiness programs.”
Over the years, families have learned about Level Up through their local school districts or other sister organizations to Envision that provide services for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Referrals have also helped the conference grow. “We are proud to see the impact Level Up makes on so many lives,” Christenson says.