After a brain tumor left him visually impaired at age 5, John Geter has used his disability as a challenge.
“There are a lot of people who feel like just because you have a disability that you’re counted out,” he said. “I look at it as getting up every day with a challenge … You’ve got to fight that much harder every day.”
Geter, 28, of Tyler, has worked hard to accomplish his goals. He has had two books of poetry published and is working on a third, owned a small vending machine business and hopes to become a recorded Gospel singer.
During his second week on the job stocking produce at Walmart, which is part of Goodwill Industries of East Texas’ job training program, Geter believes he is an inspiration to others with disabilities. He said most people who work at Walmart bring their “A” game to work, but he has to be on his “A” game times 10.
There are about 60 to 70 people going through Goodwill’s work adjustment training program right now, and Geter is the only one working at a local business through its job training program.
Geter is a Goodwill employee while he goes through the training program, where a job coach works with him. He works 25 hours a week and at the end of the program, Walmart can decide to hire him as an employee.
“If I get the job, maybe it will tell other people they can get off the couch and not just wait to get a check,” Geter said.
FUEL TO THE FIRE
Geter was born in Tyler but grew up in Arlington. One day when he was 5, his mom told him to stop crossing his eyes. Since he was not crossing them purposely, she took him to a doctor, who found he had a brain tumor. Surgery to remove the tumor damaged his optic nerve and left him blind.
Geter had been riding a bike and everything a 5-year-old does. After surgery, everything was pitch black. “It was scary,” he said.
For four years, he got tested every six months to make sure the tumor hadn’t returned. During that time, he gained “a pinch of site in his left eye,” he said, adding that he can see shapes, shadows and colors but no details.
He uses what he does have to his advantage.
Since he was a child, Geter said he loved to write poetry and sing and always wanted to own a business. But every time he talked about it, people would say, “OK” and quickly try to change the subject because they didn’t think he could do it.
“All that did was add fuel to my fire,” he said.
Geter has written two books, “Poems from Within” and “Windows of My Mind,” full of inspirational and love poems. “I pour my heart into all the books I write,” he said, adding that it took him two years to write and publish them both and he is working on a third.
Through a program of The Division for Blind Services Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin, which he attended after high school, Geter also ran a business, Geters Vending, for six years.
He worked for Lighthouse for the Blind in Fort Worth, doing a little bit of everything, for four years until he was laid off and moved back to Tyler three years ago. His counselor at Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services told him it would be hard to find a job with his level of vision, he said.
Geter began venturing out on his own and heard about Goodwill’s job training program, which he began in September and graduated from in December. The program helped him interact with people, as well as become a mentor to others. It has also allowed him to get a job and know what it is to work with people.
He started working at Walmart on Texas Highway 64 West on Jan. 6.
“I mainly stock up everything in this produce section,” he said. He’d memorized where everything went after just five days of work.
Geter said that when one sense is lost, others are heightened.
Some of the carts and produce bins are labeled with metal Braille, and he uses a bar code reader to scan some produce, such as bagged potatoes and salads. But there are a lot of fruits and vegetables he can tell the difference of by feeling them.
Geter said what he likes most about the job is he’s constantly busy.
“There’s not too much time to twiddle your thumbs,” he said. “I like to always be doing something … I want to feel like I deserve everything I get.”
Ben Reinwand, 30, a job coach with Goodwill, has been working with Geter and said the goal is to get him trained so he could continue working there on his own.
“Sometimes, I just don’t even know of his disability because he does so well,” he said, adding that most of the customers aren’t aware of his disability.
Geter is learning how to tell the difference between Red Delicious, Gold Delicious and Granny Smith apples just by feeling them. “It’s so awesome,” he said.
Reinwand sees Geter as an inspiration.
“He’s even teaching me stuff,” he said. “Seeing John want to be out there and working, he’s doing what he wants to do and accomplishing what he wants. And he’s not letting his disability hold him back.”
Reinwand said not only has Geter memorized where all of the produce is, he knows where everything is on the grocery side of the store. “He can tell you exactly where the sugar is,” he said.
Kammy Locascio, employment specialist with Goodwill, began working with Geter about a year ago.
“He’s gone above and beyond what most regular employees would do for a company and he’s not even working here yet,” she said.
Before the job training program at Walmart, Geter went through the work adjustment training program at Goodwill, a stepping stone to employment. Within two weeks, Geter began acting as a leader to others and nearly became a trainer, Ms. Locascio said.
“A lot of people who come in have been given everything,” she said, adding that their program teaches them to empower themselves, that they don’t always need help and it gives them a “hand up in their own life.”
“He put our words into actions when he started leading others,” she said. “He’s out there doing real work. When others see him it puts things into perspective for them.”
Marcia Floyd, marketing consultant for Goodwill, said helping someone gain employment changes them. It’s the “transformation of giving someone a chance,” she said.
Ms. Locascio agreed.
“We focus on their ability, instead of disability,” she said.
Ms. Floyd feels a lot of people don’t know about the services Goodwill offers. She said its stores are only part of the organization, funding its mission. Last year, Goodwill provided services to about 500 people in East Texas, she said.
Ms. Floyd said they have been working with Walmart for nearly a year and have helped another visually impaired blind man get a job there in the bakery. The program also works with the Hilton Garden Inn, Office Depot and Suddenlink.
On his off time, Geter is working on his third book of poetry and putting out a gospel CD. For both, he needs to save up money to get them published and in stores.
Geter said he has been singing in churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area since he was a kid and is trying to get his name out there in Tyler. He sang a song during his Goodwill program graduation to thank everyone for what they did for him.
He said he sings gospel because when he had a tumor at age 5, “God is the one who let me stay here through it all. There are not enough songs I can sing … that can ever repay Him for what I’ve been through. All the glory goes to Him.”
In his free time, he said he also spends a lot of time thinking about future goals.
“I like to stay five or six steps beyond my goals,” he said. Not only does he want his third book and gospel CD in stores, he wants to one day travel with his music.
“I am inspirational to others because I defeated the odds, overcame and continue to overcome barriers …,” he said.