Texas Tech University

Blindness Just Part of Life for Congressional Intern

Heidi Toth

July 7, 2015

Senior Ashley Melero wanted to see the policy side of her field of social work, so she spent a month this summer in Washington interning on Capitol Hill.

Ashley Melero

WASHINGTON – Ashley Melero sits at her desk preparing a “Dear Colleague” letter for her boss.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee authored House Bill 83, a bill to help states acquire emergency notification systems. As Melero finished the letter requesting support for the bill, Jackson Lee's constituents in Houston prepared for Tropical Storm Bill.

Melero, a Texas Tech University senior with a double major in social work and sociology, is one of 23 students who spent part or all of their summer in Washington, D.C., as interns at the U.S. Capitol. They live in the Tech House, a block away from Capitol Hill, joining hundreds of employees each morning hurrying through the muggy D.C. air.

Melero's routine is much the same. She and fellow Texas Tech intern Lindsey Sweetgall head for the intersection, talking as they weave quickly through the heavy traffic. Sweetgall is just a half-step ahead; Melero has her right hand on Sweetgall's elbow and with her left holds onto Truffle, her guide dog. The trio has a 10-minute walk to their building's elevator, where Sweetgall splits from Melero and Truffle, both women get to work and the Hill's only canine intern settles in for a nap.

It's been a busy summer for the El Paso native. Besides her work, including a floor statement published in the official congressional record, Melero has explored D.C. with the other interns, and she's seen all of Capitol Hill and the National Mall using tactile maps written in braille that are housed in the Capitol.

“It was really cool to see it all laid out,” she said of the map. “In Texas we don't have that.”


Ashley and Truffle

Melero was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that causes blindness. Both of her parents were carriers, and she and her sister were born blind. This has required some adjustments in her surroundings as she's grown up and moved away, but hasn't slowed her much.

“You learn, not necessarily that things are harder, but it's more that you have to learn to do them in a different way,” she said.

She got Truffle four years ago when she came to Texas Tech, and the two found their way around campus. Making her way from apartment to classrooms to the library became second nature, and Truffle loved leading Melero around the now-familiar campus. The nation's capitol has taken a little more adjustment for both of them.

For one, they had to get used to an entirely new campus. Before her first day at work, Melero and Truffle met with a legislative staffer, Texas Tech alumna Stephanie Addison, who walked the pair around the Capitol, finding Jackson Lee's office, the bathroom and other important points. Melero would give Truffle a treat at each point so she would remember it.

Once Truffle learned how to get them to work, Melero found skills she needed to learn. She hadn't used Microsoft Excel before, so she turned to Google to figure out shortcut keys. Now her biggest concern is Truffle, who's used to changing classrooms every hour. Sometimes she gets a little too comfortable under Melero's desk.

“Truffle snores,” she said with a laugh.

Fortunately, the yellow lab has a fan club, said Lillie Coney, the policy director in Jackson Lee's office. They've loved their first four-legged intern.

“Truffle has gotten great reviews,” she said.

Working on the Hill

Melero typing

Melero and Truffle could walk to work alone, but on most days Sweetgall, who works in Rep. Gene Green's office two floors up, walks with them to the Rayburn Building.

“OK, Truff, you're up,” Sweetgall says as the doors open on the second floor. Truffle heads out of the elevator and trots around a corner, through the office door to Melero's corner desk, where she settles down for a break while Melero gears up for a busy day. Other interns and staff members greet each other, fill water bottles and power up computers with the TV tuned to CNN.

“The hallmark of working for Sheila Jackson Lee as an intern is the work you get to do is pretty much training for a legislative staff position,” Coney said. “You're going to be doing real work.”

Although Melero has a machine on her desk that includes regular and braille keyboards, most of her work is done on a computer that looks the same as all the computers in the office, except hers always has headphones plugged in. She has a program that reads whatever is on the screen to her, the robotic voice emphasizing capital letters, punctuation and tabbed spaces.

She is always busy. If she finds herself out of projects, Melero talks to Coney, who immediately finds work for her and the five other interns in Jackson Lee's office.

“I couldn't even have imagined that it would be the way it is,” Melero said, adding she'd heard interns got coffee and answered the phone. “I was surprised when they were like, ‘You're going to write a floor statement.' I'm going to what? I've been pleasantly surprised at the work we've been allowed to do in this office.”

Jackson Lee
Sheila Jackson Lee

The most beneficial experience so far has been the girls in juvenile justice briefing, in which four girls who'd been through the system and two juvenile judges talked about what's working and what's not in the juvenile justice system. What they all said, and what Melero has seen in her work, is the system is set up to punish after a person is in trouble, instead of focusing on prevention or intervention.

She also sees a lack of help for parents in social work programs. If the purpose of Child Protective Services is to reunite families and help them function, it should have programs that help adults be better parents in addition to its focus on children.

“If the parent isn't fixed it's going to happen all over again,” Melero said.

She's also seeing social work from a policy aspect, which she said will help her in her career; Melero wants to work in foster care and adoptions. Besides that, she's learning to be organized and juggle half a dozen different assignments, which will come in handy when she's a case worker.

It's exhausting, Melero admits. She's at the Capitol from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., busy the whole time, and just wants to collapse into bed when she gets home. She's not the only one.

“When 5:59 comes Truffle will get up and be ready to go,” she said. “She knows when it's time to go home.”

Truffle is on duty from the time they leave the Tech House to when they get back and on any trips they take to museums, baseball games, intern receptions and other Washington, D.C. outings. At home the vest comes off and she gets the run of the first floor. She's enjoyed D.C. as well, Melero said, though Truffle wasn't used to the humidity at first.

Going to Washington

Melero with interns

About 50 interns, both graduate and undergraduate Texas Tech students, go to Washington each year. Internships are available during the spring and fall semesters as well as both summer semesters. Their fields of study range from law to public relations to English to agriculture.

Melero got an email last fall about the internship, but she wasn't sure she'd apply. It sounded fun, but she graduates in December, and she worried the internship would interfere with her program. She mentioned it to her father, and he latched onto the idea.

“As time went on I kept getting calls from my dad: ‘Have you applied?' I'm like, ‘no, Dad, I haven't yet.' ‘You'd better do it.'”

The interview was less intimidating than she expected – questions focused on how well she'd fit into the program, not on how much she knew about the politics of social work – and then she waited for weeks to hear.

Her parents are quietly worried, she said. D.C. is a big, unfamiliar city and she's far away from home.

That they're worried because she's blind never comes up.

“It's not challenging for me. It's not different for me,” Melero said. “It's not something I have to face every day. It's who I am. It's what I know. It's me.”