May 19, 2011
The Joshua Project
“Mommy, can I have some water?” asked Joshua Goldenberg, a 7-year-old with a beautiful mane of curls and a gap-tooth smile. His mother, Christie, handed him a bottle.
“How do you know it’s water?” he asked.
“Because it says so on the label,” she answered.
Frustrated, Josh responded, “Why isn’t it in Braille, Mommy? I want it to be in Braille. I want to read it, too.”
Rather than explain to her blind child that the world in which they live is rarely accommodating to his needs, Christie responded with the family’s characteristic can-do attitude: “Let’s work on that, Josh.”
And work on it, they have. The Goldenbergs, Simi Valley residents and members of Adat Elohim, are pioneering what is quickly becoming a movement to increase awareness and accessibility for visually impaired shoppers in Southern California. Sparked by one of Josh’s many questions about the ways of the world, the family has begun to bring Braille labels to grocery store shelves at two local markets.
The idea came about not long ago as Josh and Christie were shopping.
“How can I buy things if I can’t read what’s there?” he asked his mother, fingering the smooth shelf signs. The simple question struck Christie, so they set about finding a solution.
“When I can’t find the resource that Josh needs, I create it,” said Christie, a stay-at-home mom of two, including Josh’s sister, Hannah, 14. Josh was born with one missing and one non-functioning eye to Christie and her husband, Evan, and the family has always tried to work through each new challenge as it arose, rather than see roadblocks for Josh.
Josh balks at using a walking cane and insists on doing everything that other kids do — including attending regular public school, riding a bike, skate-boarding, swimming and enjoying movies (his doting big sister narrates) — so when Christie discovered that the only resource available to visually impaired shoppers is employee assistance, she knew that wouldn’t cut it for her ferociously independent son.
The Goldenbergs first approached management at Trader Joe’s in Westlake Village with the proposal of putting up Braille labels for select items; when they received permission, Josh excitedly stamped out labels on his green, antiquated-looking Braille typewriter.
NBC Channel 4 news featured two segments on Josh in April, in which fellow shoppers marveled at Josh’s ingenuity. One shopper said, “What a precious thing to do, especially for a child to do it.”
Josh’s father, Evan, remarked how many people have expressed surprise that no one else had thought of this before, and that it took a 7-year-old child to point out a basic lack of resources for the visually impaired.
Trader Joe’s management later removed the Braille labels — a corporate representative would not comment on the specific reasons, but did say the company makes great efforts in other ways to assist shoppers with special needs — but the setback didn’t dampen the Goldenbergs’ pioneering spirit.
In fact, they were already tackling the shelves at another neighborhood grocery store — the Whole Foods store in Thousand Oaks — whose management not only welcomed what was becoming known as The Joshua Project, but also brainstormed ideas to make the system functional, raise awareness and increase the scope of the project.
Shelving for dozens of items now are marked by clear plastic Braille labels, and displays on the aisles have big blue signs explaining the project. Employees even Brailled their nametags.
“Part of our core values is to support the community,” said Ashley Eaton, the store’s marketing supervisor, whose enthusiasm sparked a momentum that now has the Goldenbergs thinking big.
“It’s always been about what Josh wants,” said Evan, an Internet sales director at an Audi dealership in Thousand Oaks. “And Josh wants to Braille the whole world, including Target — he loves Target. But this is an opportunity to take it beyond Josh’s needs, to turn it into a nonprofit to help thousands of others.”
E-mails from parents of other blind children have already started pouring in — they want to Braille their store shelves, too. Christie, who belongs to an online community of parents of blind children, is excited to serve as a guide for others struggling to find resources for their children.
In their fight to make the world a more accommodating place for Josh, the Goldenbergs have discovered the most effective approach is to make it personal. When they go to ask for assistance at the school district office, at government agencies or from the management at grocery stores, they bring Josh.
“Once you show people that you’re not talking about a statistic, you’re talking about a real boy, they soften and are more willing to help,” Christie said. And it doesn’t hurt that the Goldenbergs are both very determined people and have taught their children to be equally assertive.
“I have to empower them to change their own world,” Christie said. “Josh needs to know that anything is possible for him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just like everyone else. He’s trying to figure out why the rest of the world treats him differently.”
Although there are times when Josh gets frustrated at not being able to do something, or sad when he longs to have this “magical” ability called seeing, his parents always tell him: “We’re not the lucky ones — you are. You have many more amazing abilities than we do; you’re special.”
And special he is: Josh’s hearing is highly developed, more so even than the average blind person. He can imitate every sound he hears, differentiating between the sound of the bedroom door or the front door closing; he plays the piano beautifully and loves to sing. He memorizes the sway of the car and potholes in the road and can tell whether they are heading to the store or the doctor’s office or the park. At age 3, he recited the alphabet backwards.
One of the most remarkable things about Josh is his sharp sense of humor. His mom recalled coming home one day and plopping on the couch, saying, “Phew, I’m exhausted.” Josh retorted, “Mom, you don’t look exhausted.”
He grinned as Christie told the story, proud of his wit.
“I’m no different than any other mom,” Christie said. “I want my son to be happy and independent and successful.”
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