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Austin Sanchez, Drumming Up Business

by Amber DiPietra, San Francisco, California

Austin Sánchez.
Math student, drummer, and future leader, Austin Sanchez

When I was working at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, I would see this trendy kid at the front desk, wearing Converse sneakers, a hoodie, and dark jeans. With ease and charm, he answered calls and assisted visitors. Then, he disappeared for a bit—I heard he was busy with a number of things: playing drums, his high school graduation, and a job at an ice cream shop. Next thing I knew, he was back at the LightHouse, typing at an upstairs cubicle and occasionally coming down to the Adaptations store in the LightHouse lobby to pick up a box of bargain items. I learned that this was Austin Sanchez, a LightHouse rock star of sorts.

Austin and I sat down together at Muddy Waters café on Valencia Street. He told me how he had originally connected with the LightHouse. “I was diagnosed with optic neuritis when I was 9. It causes me to have really low vision. So first, I got involved with Project Insights.” Project Insights is a program through the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department that provides outdoor adventures, arts classes and other cool stuff for youth with visual impairments. Project Insights often took the kids to the LightHouse for fun activities. Austin loved the LightHouse staff and went on to do an early internship as a LightHouse receptionist when he was 15. He also worked in the LightHouse’s development department and learned a great deal about researching fundraising contacts and setting up a spreadsheet.

Then, Austin got the opportunity to take part in an advanced internship at the LightHouse through the new Blind Leaders program. Interns in this program gain valuable professional experience while working at the LightHouse or in the community on behalf of the LightHouse. In Austin’s case, he had the perfect position to enhance his growing interest in business. The LightHouse needed help creating an eBay outlet for its Adaptations store. “Sam Rodriguez  [Adaptations manager] handed me a big box full of pill trays with large print and Braille labels, talking watches, and other stuff. My job was to find out which companies originally made the items, how much they were sold for, how they were originally described, and then figure out how to photograph them and re-describe them in a way that made them easy to find on eBay.”

This was an important and challenging task. eBay sales contributed to LightHouse funds for providing services. eBay also served as a good source for bargain items—since many visually impaired customers shop on a tight budget. The tricky part was that the items Austin was handling for the eBay store are very useful for lots of people with low vision, but they are not items you find in brick and mortar stores. So, sometimes eBay shoppers do not know what keywords to use to search for the products they need. Austin had to hone clever wordsmithing skills and smart pricing instincts to list and sell the items on the LightHouse eBay store. To make the work accessible, Austin used screen magnification software and portable CCTVs.

“Sam was fun to work with and he expected a lot out of me. Arlena Winn, who manages the Blind Leaders program, was a mentor figure to me because she majored in both psychology and finance.”  Arlena also helped Austin set up an informational interview with LightHouse board member Gena Harper, a financial analyst.

When I asked him about other jobs he has had, Austin reflected on his experience working at a very popular San Francisco ice cream parlor. Austin was able to put large font labels on all the ice cream tubs to make them easier for him to read, but he got rattled at the cash register. “I accidentally charged a woman $100 for ice cream.” The font on the credit card machine could not be enlarged and he accidentally entered the wrong amount in his hurry to provide fast service. The customer got pretty mad and so did Austin’s manager. Normal vision is 20/20 and most people whose vision is 20/200 or worse are considered legally blind. Austin’s vision is somewhere between 20/300 and 20/600. I asked him if his employer understood how his vision functioned and how an accessible work station could have helped. “Nah,” he said, “probably not. The LightHouse would’ve said I needed to advocate for myself more strongly.” I nodded, but then smiled, thinking that it was nice to know that even a math whiz makes those kinds of mistakes.

Austin isn’t all business and numbers though. There is the rock n’ roll part. He’s been in two different bands that he connected with through his church group. The first was a garage band with two drummers, himself and a more experienced drummer. “We just liked being loud and I wasn’t very good, but I had fun. I learned from my friend.” Now, he is in a band called We Still Got Time, what he calls “the more professional band.” Check them out at the San Francisco Quest for the Best contest. In this video, Austin is playing drums in a relatively slow song, which is no easy feat. This takes a skillful sense of timing and a real attention to the music. The band performs original songs and covers by bands like Modest Mouse and Coldplay.

I told Austin that my dad is a rock drummer who loves math and that he often says music is a beautiful form of math. “Yeah….,” Austin acknowledged, “my mom is a classical pianist and she says that. So far, I have not felt the connection yet.” We laughed and I told Austin he still had time. For the moment, the band is on hold while Austin, who is now 19, attends classes at City College of San Francisco. He plans to get some of the basics down and then move on to a university to complete his Masters of Business Administration degree with an emphasis in finance. “But,” he added, “music will always be a part of my life.”

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