SANDSTONE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — There were plenty of times Caleb Clack thought he might quit.
If he wanted an excuse, he certainly had one, but Caleb’s predominant attitude always is positive.
The 16-year-old recently completed a waterfront cleanup project on Center Lake that will earn him the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest level in Boy Scouting.
Only a small percentage of boys accomplish this and Caleb’s achievement comes more than three years after he was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, retinitis pigmentosa, which causes a slow but progressive loss of vision.
There is no cure and, eventually, Caleb could become legally blind.
“There are a lot of things, if he got down about it, he’d have the right,” Caleb’s mother, Sandra Clack, told the Jackson Citizen Patriot ( http://bit.ly/14O4FoT ) from the family home in Sandstone Township.
Caleb, a junior at Western High School, does not let his disease dominate his thoughts. It isn’t his crutch, his Scout troop leaders and others said.
“I always look it in a positive way instead of saying, ‘It’s going to be hard,’” Caleb said as he fiddled with a collapsible “straight cane” and sat in his father’s living room recliner.
Caleb was diagnosed in March 2010. He went to have his eyeglasses renewed and the doctor did not understand why his vision could not be corrected, his mother said.
A doctor at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center discovered he had “RP.”
He likely inherited the condition from Sandra Clack. His grandfather, who died in 1990, was blind by the time he was in his 50s.
Sandra Clack never knew her father to see well enough to drive, but he worked as a janitor in a factory in Kalamazoo for 28 years. He made baskets and cakes and taught his children to ice skate.
“I don’t remember him doing anything different than anyone else,” she said.
Caleb now can see fairly well during the day. Night blindness is his main symptom. After the sun sets, he cannot see past an arm’s length, his mother said.
This prevents him from doing some activities, such as playing his euphonium and marching with the high school band during night football games. He instead plays percussion on the sideline.
School staff has been understanding and helpful. Teachers “blow up” documents for him. He has an iPad with an app that will download a textbook, which allows Caleb to increase the font size, said Patti Smith, a teacher consultant for the Jackson County Intermediate School District. She specializes in visual impairments and learning disabilities and sees Caleb about once a week.
“He is doing very well, but I wish he would work on his keyboarding skills a little more,” Smith wrote in an email, friendly hinting at Caleb to practice.
Caleb also works with a mobility specialist, who helps him learn to move about independently.
“The tricky thing about RP is that you often start with ‘normal vision’ and everything is going along until BAM! It starts,” Smith wrote.
It can begin with a loss of peripheral and night vision, she said.
“Kids like Caleb have to be extra brave as they adjust,” Smith wrote. A student’s family is crucial in this process, and Caleb’s parents are “amazing,” she said.
Clearly, his mother, a statistician and adjunct college professor, and his father, Steve Clack, are supportive.
Sandra Clack, because her father and an uncle were blind, has some experience dealing with vision impairments, but it is still difficult to see “her baby” learning braille.
Steve Clack has taken his son’s diagnosis even harder.
“You are the dad, you have to be the protector of the family and something bad has happened to someone you love and you can’t do nothing about it,” said Steve Clack, a driver for the Jackson Area Transportation Authority.
Steve Clack said his son handles his condition better than he does. “He’s kind of like a hero to me.”
Caleb could be a “big baby” about going on Scouting trips and dealing with “pure darkness.”
“He doesn’t even second guess it. He just does it,” Steve Clack said.
Caleb has long been involved in Scouting. As an 11-year-old, he appeared in the Citizen Patriot for collecting more than 80 patches and 40 belt loops as a Cub Scout.
At that time, he said he was inspired by his older brother, a 27-year-old who was in the Marines, and aspired to be an Eagle Scout.
In the following years, he wasn’t always so sure he would make it.
Admittedly, he lost interest in Scouting for a period. He didn’t seem to really believe in himself, said Caleb’s Scoutmaster, Scott DeVries of Spring Arbor Township. But this changed. “He kind of all of a sudden had an internal resolve,” DeVries said.
Caleb became more independent, took on leadership roles within the troop and completed his Eagle Scout project, which had about 20 people hauling glass bottles, metal rods and other objects from the swimming area Saturday, Sept. 7, on Fifth Street in Leoni Township. Under his guidance, they planted shrubbery, weeded and cleaned up the area, enhancing both its appearance and safety.
“Caleb has come a long way,” said Tighe Conroy of Blackman Township, an assistant Scoutmaster.
“His skill set when he was younger has improved greatly until now, which is phenomenal.”
Since his diagnosis, Caleb said he has ups and downs. There have been bouts of depression, he said.
At first, he did not understand. “I didn’t think it would happen,” he said of the possible blindness.
It became “real” when he started going to high school. Things became harder to see, he said.
He tried to take driver’s training, but he had a couple near misses when he did not spot other vehicles and he never finished. He does not expect he will be able to drive.
“All his buddies are getting licenses and cars, and he can’t do that,” his father said.
His parents try to take him wherever he needs to go, Steve Clack said. “I don’t want him to feel limited.”
Caleb, a teen with a firm handshake and a clear voice, sees a counselor and remains busy.
He has a whole repertoire of yo-yo tricks, which he seems to revel in demonstrating, and is active in youth activities and ministry at his church.
Despite his disdain for homework and an apparent knack for distraction, he said he earns mostly A’s and B’s.
During the summer, he went to Europe, visiting France, Italy, Spain and Germany. His mother went with him. He did yo-yo tricks in front of historic landmarks.
“We’ve traveled as much as possible since his diagnosis,” Sandra Clack said.
Her son does not often speak of his vision problems.
“He doesn’t say, like, ‘I am going blind,’” said Greg Fulks, 17, of Munith, a friend of Caleb’s from Cornerstone Apostolic Church in Leoni Township.
“He doesn’t think bad thoughts.”
After high school, Caleb wants to go to college, either to Western Michigan University or Michigan State University. The Michigan Coalition for the Blind will help him get through it.
He doesn’t know what he will study or do. He is interested in working for YouTube, editing and making videos.
He is certain he will be successful.
“I’ll be rich, I know it. Filthy rich.”