(VIDEO) Lexi Rendon, a human development and family studies major from Ennis, is already making her mark in West Texas.
Focused, determined, ambitious: these are just a few of the words people use when describing Lexi Rendon, and it's not difficult to see why.
The freshman human development and family studies major from Ennis has been a Texas Tech University student for less than two months. In addition to a full load of classes, she already is involved (or planning to be involved) in several on-campus organizations, including Raider Church, Wishmakers and the Student Activities Board.
None of this is any surprise to her parents, Alex and Dena Rendon. This is the way Lexi has always been, they said, fearless and confident in her approach to anything she tackles. But Alex he did have one concern about his daughter being so far from home and on a campus as big as Texas Tech.
"Taking how confident and comfortable she walks around, I worried about drivers,” Alex said. "She wears her visual impairment so well.”
The fact that Lexi is considered legally blind, with only 20/400 vision in her right eye and none in her left, often surprises those around her. Fortunately, Lexi's transition to life as a Red Raider has been a smooth one, thanks in part to Honey, her Seeing Eye dog, the resources and services provided by Student Disability Services (SDS) and the support she said she has received from faculty and fellow students on campus.
"I just love the atmosphere here,” Lexi said. "I love meeting new people and making friends – that's probably been the best part.”
Growing up visually impaired
Lexi was the Rendons' first child. Just six weeks after she was born, her mother said she noticed there was something unusual about her eyes. After visits to a pediatrician, an optometrist and then a retina specialist, Lexi's parents received her diagnosis.
"Bilateral retinoblastoma is a pretty rare form of pediatric cancer,” Lexi said. "Bilateral means it affected both my eyes and, at that point, they removed my left eye because the cancer was way too progressed. That ultimately saved my life.”
For four years, the Rendons traveled from Ennis to doctors in Dallas and Philadelphia for chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments. During this time, Lexi began working with vision therapists and early child intervention specialists.
"Having those therapists come to the house whenever she was a baby and toddler, that was key,” Dena said. "They would do play therapy with her, show her colorful objects, help her use her senses. There was a lot of sensory integration to help her with that.”
The therapy and activities were a precursor to Lexi learning braille, said Dena, who works with the school district in Ennis as a dyslexia therapist. Lexi continued practicing braille as she started in a preschool program for children with impairments, then progressed into a traditional classroom setting when she entered elementary school.
"Growing up, there was nothing that I would consider abnormal – I don't know anything different,” Lexi said. "I can't imagine what you see and you can't imagine what I see. I definitely don't feel like I missed out on anything. I feel like this is just a part of who I am, but not who I am.
"It's definitely made me more independent. I had to grow up a lot quicker than most people and figure things out and be more diligent. People ask, ‘How can you not be sad about things?' and I'm just like, you can either sit and cry about it or just get up and do it. I was always very involved with stuff growing up, and I think it's made me the person I am. I wouldn't change anything.”
Her independence was evident early on. When she was in second grade, the Rendons traveled to Austin so Lexi could attend a weekend course at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The course, which focused on teaching skills for independence, included no contact with parents.
"On Sunday, we go to pick her up and my wife is running to her with open arms,” Alex recalled, laughing. "She's thinking it going to be like a TV reunion. Lexi just goes, ‘Oh, hey. Hi.'”
Soon, Lexi's elementary school teachers identified her as gifted and talented.
"Blindness or being visually impaired does not affect how I do a lot of things,” Lexi said. "I hold myself to a very high standard. I always say I would like to do things equal to the people around me or even better.”
Her success showed no signs of waning as she grew older, continuing all the way through middle school and then through high school, where she took Advanced Placement courses.
"I'm constantly hearing from faculty members here at our school that they're just amazed at how she is just so driven and works so hard,” said Alex, who serves as assistant principal at Ennis High School. "She doesn't complain and she's very successful.”
In addition to being a member of the National Honor Society and receiving numerous academic awards and scholarships, Lexi stayed active, first in dance classes, then in CrossFit in high school. Her parents said her impairment has never seemed to limit her abilities or experiences.
"Even with every reason to be frustrated or feel overwhelmed, she still has a smile on her face and is so positive,” Alex said. "She never once asked why she had cancer or lost her eye or why she is legally blind. She understands that what makes her who she is, is all of this.”
More steps to independence
There is one thing Lexi can't do – drive a car (at least, she said, until self-driving cars become a reality for the general population). But that just meant finding another way to be independently mobile.
"Honey, my Seeing Eye dog, was something I wanted to get for a very long time,” Lexi said. "Sixteen came around and everyone was getting cars and I couldn't. So I applied to The Seeing Eye, one of the leading seeing-eye dog schools in the country.”
She was accepted, and in June 2016, the summer before her senior year, she flew to Morristown, New Jersey, to train with Honey.
"I was with Honey at school for about a month learning what she knew,” Lexi said. "She was already fully trained at that point, I was just getting acclimated to what she knew so we would work well as a team. It's been about a year now, and she's been doing wonderfully.”
Though she looks and acts like any other yellow Labrador retriever at home, once her harness is on, Honey knows she's at work.
"It's like a switch,” Lexi said. "She knows once that harness goes on, she knows she has to be very on-task and behave herself. She would love for you to pet her, she's a very friendly dog, but Seeing Eye dogs are typically not allowed to be petted while working.”
During Lexi's senior year at Ennis High School, the two became a true team, giving Lexi a bit more of the freedom she hoped for. Near the end of the school year, in April, she had the opportunity to gain even more independence with the help of a new piece of technology: a pair of eSight glasses.
According to the eSight website, the glasses house a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures whatever the user is viewing. The image is enhanced on two OLED screens, allowing them to see a clear image that would otherwise be impossible.
Lexi knew what the glasses could do – she had seen reaction videos of users crying with excitement after trying the technology. She also knew there was a chance the glasses wouldn't work for her.
"I couldn't go into that meeting with too many high hopes because they don't work for everyone, unfortunately, and that has a lot to do with the vision they do or don't have,” Lexi said. "It wasn't until I really tried them on was that I really realized for myself what they could do.”
As she sat in the media center at her high school, she put on the glasses and started with a few small things, reading charts across the room and small print on a paper on the table. Both were things she had been unable to see without the glasses.
"I think I first realized what they were doing when I was reading print on a piece of paper nobody else in the room with perfect vision could read,” Lexi said. "I looked across the room and saw people at the desk, and that was insane to me.”
She walked out of the center and looked down what she said is the longest hallway on campus. From her end of the hallway, she was able to identify one of the school's coaches at the other end.
"I just lost it, I was bawling,” she remembers.
Then she saw her parents.
"Her face just lit up,” Alex said. "She could see people up close and she couldn't contain how amazed she was. When she saw her mom down the hallway, she was just shocked.”
Getting and giving help
There was just one hitch in getting Lexi her own pair of eSight glasses – the $10,000 price tag. Dena said she didn't think there would be a way to get Lexi something so expensive, especially right as she was going away to college.
But after her friends saw her reaction to the glasses, word spread across their small community. Late that Sunday, two of the Rendons' friends, Erica and Wade Bishop, set up a GoFundMe page. By Wednesday morning, the fundraiser's goal was met.
"I'm not surprised by this community and what they're capable of doing for one of their own,” Alex said. "I was surprised by how quickly the goal was reached.”
It wasn't the first time Ennis had come together to help the Rendons or other members of the community. When Lexi was first diagnosed, funds were raised to help the family with the cost of her treatments and traveling to receive them. Throughout the years, Alex said Lexi has kind of become a daughter to the entire town.
"The community is about 20,000 people now,” Alex said. "They always follow her and know where she is and what she is doing.”
Taking care of others in their time of need is something Lexi feels strongly about, too. In 2014, she started Lexi's Gifts, an initiative focused on bringing joy to teens and young adults receiving treatment for cancer at Children's Medical Center of Dallas.
"This was a way for me to give back to one of the hospitals that treated me and helped me through so much,” Lexi said. "You usually think of toddlers or little kids, but people forget teenagers are there, too.”
What started as a solo project soon included help from her National Honor Society chapter, resulting in a large collection of gift cards, nail polish, headphones and socks, among other things. Last year, $2,500 in gifts were distributed to patients.
"She wants to reach people, impact and inspire them,” Alex said. "That's part of her drive: she feels like she lives for other people.”
Becoming a Red Raider
Lexi admits Texas Tech wasn't her first choice. Other schools were closer and had a bigger connection with her hometown. But Texas Tech was one of the few offering her major, so it became one of the universities she would visit before deciding.
The visit to Raiderland was the only one that mattered.
"Mom, there's no need to visit the other colleges.” Dena recalls Lexi saying on the way home. "I'm going to Texas Tech.”
Her parents also were impressed with the university. From the initial campus visit, to Red Raider Orientation and Raider Camp, to their meeting with Tamara Mancini, a counselor in SDS, they knew Lexi belonged at Texas Tech. Faculty and staff remembered their names and helped Lexi with her transition to college in whatever way they could.
"Any time we've done anything related to the university, it's always been a perfect visit,” Alex said. "Regardless of what event we go to, it's always been a perfect fit.”
Dena said one thing that stood out was learning that, when possible, faculty try to keep class ratios small so the students and professors could get to know one another.
"That made a huge impact on me as a mom,” Dena said. "I didn't want her to go to a large university and be just another number.”
Mancini said a big part of Lexi's success so far can be attributed to her and her parents taking a proactive role in her education from the very first meeting.
"They were excited for her to be here,” Mancini said. "They asked questions and were very appreciate of the fact there would be a department to help them.”
Lexi arrived on campus with Honey this summer, staying with a family friend and getting herself and Honey accustomed to the campus before classes began this fall. When classes started, she and Honey were in the front row of each class, ready with her eSight glasses.
"Every professor went to her after her first class and spoke to her,” Alex said. "All of them were very welcoming. I'm not fearful at all for her college life and the amount of work. Everything we've experienced seems like it was laid out for her and knowing she's safe and in the right spot, I cannot imagine her feeling overwhelmed.”
Mancini said she's met with Lexi every week and can see that she's adjusting well.
"She has met some other visually impaired students, and she also joined some organizations on campus,” Mancini said. "That's just her personality. It doesn't matter if she had a disability or not. It wouldn't matter if she could see everything. She's going to be one of our impressive students, and I expect big things from Lexi.”
While she misses home-cooked meals, overall, Lexi said she enjoys life as a Red Raider.
"SDS is great, my counselor is wonderful, they're very accommodating and detailed-oriented to what I need and what other students need,” Lexi said. "Everyone here is willing to help whenever it's needed, and that's really been a part of what has made my college experience thus far so easy of a transition.”
Dena said they're excited for what Lexi will accomplish during and after her time at Texas Tech.
"She has always believed in herself, and we've always told her just because she's visually impaired does not mean she can't achieve her dreams and goals: you can do what you want to do and nothing is going to hold you back,” Dena said. "If there's a way to impact others and make a positive difference, that's what we want her to do. We look forward to her future there and being a part of the Red Raider family. We couldn't be more proud.”