Mayra Saldana-Balvastro celebrating with her family after graduating from Mohave Community College - December 2019
Credit: Mayra Saldana-Balvastro
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Throughout the month, DES will share stories of individuals with disabilities who have utilized Arizona's Vocational Rehabilitation program to achieve success in the workforce.
At the age of 17, Mayra Saldana-Balvastro began losing her vision rapidly due to an untreated case of uveitis (inflammation in the eye). Despite her condition, she was determined to pursue her dream of becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). With the support of the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program, she was well equipped for the road ahead.
From 2011 to 2018, Mayra worked various fast food jobs and at a hotel with her mother, mostly servicing rooms. As her vision worsened, she lost the ability to handle transactions and do intricate tasks.
In 2018, she applied for a position with a sandwich shop near her house in Kingman, but when she revealed to the hiring manager she was blind, he told her to find a ride home, because she wouldn’t be allowed to work there.
“That was the first time I was turned down for being blind, which was really discouraging,” Mayra said. “I think I cried the whole day.”
Despite the disappointing setback, a determined Saldana-Balvastro still wanted more for herself. She contacted Daniel Enriquez, a Yuma-based VR counselor who works specifically with individuals who are blind or visually impaired after her grandfather, who is a parapalegic and the source of her motivation to become a CNA, told her she isn’t alone in navigating the world with a disability.
“It all happened really quickly, actually,” Mayra said. “Daniel went up to Kingman, and me and my mom went one day after work [to meet with Daniel at the DES office], and he told me about all these training programs I could attend.”
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Mayra and Daniel reviewed the VR support options available to her and decided she would attend the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton to develop independent living skills.
“She took a big leap and decided to go to the Colorado Center of the Blind’s residential program,” Daniel said. “We assisted her with flights and transportation, but she did it on her own.”
Mayra Saldana-Balvastro prepping food blindfolded at the Colorado Center for the Blind. This is one of the many exercises at the Center.
Credit: Mayra Saldana-Balvastro
While living at the center, Mayra developed a multitude of independent living skills, including how to live and travel alone, use assistive technology, read braille and cook.
“We also did recreational stuff, like snowboarding, paddle boarding, rock climbing. It was pretty sick,” Mayra said.
When she returned to Kingman, Mayra was “on Cloud 9, on this high of self-advocacy,” ready to study to become a CNA at Mohave Community College. Despite advisors suggesting she go for something more clerical, and less hands-on, Mayra and Daniel decided that giving up on her dream to become a CNA was not an option. Enriquez advised her to utilize the resources from the school’s accessibility department to secure the specialized tools she needed to succeed in the CNA program.
Mayra graduated from the CNA program with ease, as her GPA never dipped below a 4.0. After securing the necessary accommodations, she took the state board exam in March of 2020 and aced it.
“Daniel was like, ‘Hey you’re a certified nursing assistant! Now your break’s over--go look for a job,’” Mayra laughed.
Daniel then connected Mayra with ELITE, a VR partner and an organization that assists individuals with job searching and preparation. With the help of ELITE, she secured a job as an in-home nurse in Littleton.
Mayra is working and living independently, something that may not have seemed possible a few years ago.
“She is a very strong, motivated, positive young woman. She’s phenomenal,” Daniel said about Mayra. “She has that attitude and personality that she wants to do better for herself; she wants to be independent. She took that huge leap from being at home and her family taking care of her, to moving by herself to Colorado and is doing it on her own.”
For more information on the VR program, visit des.az.gov/vr.
By Ben Flores