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Samantha Ambrico, Islip High School

Samantha Ambrico studies and teaches dance, works as

Samantha Ambrico studies and teaches dance, works as a camp counselor and holds down a part-time job — all while living without the benefit of sight. She is legally blind as a result of Lebers Congenital Amaurosis. In the 9th grade she had an aide who helped her with schoolwork and getting from class to class at Islip High School. She now has a guide dog, who will accompany her to college, where she plans to earn a graduate degree in dance therapy and open her own dance studio for children with special needs. (June 3, 2013)

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Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Samantha Ambrico is like most teens in many respects, with some variations. Her hair and makeup are immaculate. She texts on her iPhone and gazes directly at whomever she's speaking to. A dancer since age 3, Ambrico is constantly in motion.

She doesn't have a driver's license and plays no high school sports, though she does play on a baseball team.

Except for the guide dog, a black lab named Laurel, at her side, people meeting Ambrico for the first time usually don't know she's blind.

Ambrico, 17, has Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare condition that has resulted in severely impaired vision since birth. The condition leaves her unable to see in detail -- she gets help with her makeup from her mother, and the font on her iPhone is enlarged.

"I'm colorblind, I'm light-sensitive, I don't have any peripheral vision," Ambrico said. "I can see you. I don't know what color your eyes are, but I can see you."

But Ambrico leads a normal life, something her parents said has always been paramount to them. She has a summer job as a counselor at a camp for visually impaired children, plays a special kind of baseball -- called "beep ball" -- and lives and breathes dance.

This fall, Ambrico will leave Islip for Eastern University in Wayne, Pa., where she will study dance and psychology. Her goal: to teach dance to disabled children to offer them the same outlet for expression she had growing up.

When she's dancing, she said, "I feel like I can be myself. There's no right or wrong in dance, so I don't have to worry about whether I'm doing it perfectly."

There have been limitations and struggles growing up visually impaired in the sighted world, said Ambrico, who is the only blind person at her school. But as she's grown, so has her independence. By her own choice, Ambrico was weaned off her personal aide at school in 11th grade, a few months after Laurel came into her life.

"We've always said she has to adapt to the sighted world," her mom, Jacqueline Ambrico, said. "The sighted world is not going to adapt to her."

While Ambrico said she doesn't feel defined by her condition, it's a central part of her life, and a few years ago she began pushing for a cure, raising funds to support research on Leber's related to her specific gene mutation. She started Project CEP290, which has raised $500, and Ambrico has raised about $3,000 for the Long Island chapter of the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. The effort is named for the mutation on the gene -- CEP290 -- that causes her condition, she said.

Ambrico said going to school out of state is a crucial step in helping her gain independence.

"I'll never be able to be totally independent," she said. Still, Leber's has made her grateful for the little things.

"This summer at the Woodside train station I saw a bird fly for the first time," Ambrico said. "My friends were all with me and thought it was so funny, but that was something really big for me."

What makes you extraordinary"Being able to work through my blindness . . . to accomplish all that I've accomplished."


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