They don't have their sight, but their smiles would just light up when you touched them and talked to them. —Springville High School senior Bekki Brau
KULLU, India — The young man steps before a crowd of Utah high school students. Someone hands him a guitar. He strums it a couple times to get a feel for it.
"I wrote this myself," he said by way of introduction.
The students were silent as he played. At the end they broke into applause and a smile spread across the performer's face. He could hear their clapping but couldn’t see the amazed expressions. He's a student at Chander Abha Memorial School for the Blind in Kullu, India.
It's moments like those that the 18 students from Utah County with the Utah-based nonprofit Youth Making a Difference will remember for years to come. They're the ones no one can predict or schedule into an itinerary.
"It was definitely the most rewarding and cool experience we've had," said Mountain View High School senior Dominique Montoya.
YMAD stopped by the school for the blind after completing a week of tutoring at three elementary schools high in the Himalayan Mountains. The group's leaders wanted to scout out the school for the blind for future trips. At first, none of the Utah volunteers were sure what to do or how best to approach the individual students seated in the main classroom. Then one of the students spoke.
"What is your name?" he said, turning his head toward one of the YMAD volunteers.
With those four words the entire feel of the room changed. The Utah teens began going from student to student, talking about hometowns, ages and favorite subjects.
"They have even less than the other kids (we tutored)," said Springville High School senior Bekki Brau. "They don't have their sight, but their smiles would just light up when you touched them and talked to them."
Mapleton High School student Cat McQueen was among the first to jump into the crowd and talk with the kids. "They're just the same, but they have something that is visibly wrong with them. I think everyone has something wrong, but theirs is easily seen," she said.
For McQueen that so-called "something wrong" is her shyness. She pushes herself to get beyond it, and said she had to psych herself up to talk to new people or to go into an interview. With children however, that shyness melts away.
"They're really accepting, and they love everyone," she said.
Statistics show India is home to one of the world's largest population of blind men, women and children. Many of the cases could be reversed with surgery, but there are not enough qualified doctors to perform them. Resources across the country vary greatly, and schools like Chander Memorial provide a much-needed service.
YMAD students and group leaders both expressed interest in making Chander Memorial a multi-day volunteer stop on future trips.
"I'm so happy they have that school," said Brau. "I think there would be people who want to exploit (the students' blindness) by begging them to come beg for money or trying to take advantage of that."