Guiding eyes lead to graduation for blind student

Rocco Fiorentino's mother, Tina, places a graduation gown on Rocco's guide dog, Glamour, under the watchful eyes of (from left) friend Kathy Feast, grandfather Larry Gatta, and his father, also named Rocco.
Rocco Fiorentino's mother, Tina, places a graduation gown on Rocco's guide dog, Glamour, under the watchful eyes of (from left) friend Kathy Feast, grandfather Larry Gatta, and his father, also named Rocco. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 22, 2014

From the day he was born until his high school graduation Friday, 17-year-old blind musician Rocco Fiorentino has experienced major life events a bit earlier than most of his peers.

On Friday, Fiorentino, of Voorhees, and his guide dog, Glamour, both with dark blue gowns draped over their shoulders, walked across the graduation stage.

"I'm just really grateful to everyone who has helped me through high school and who has been around me and supported me," Fiorentino, the first blind student to go through Eastern Camden County Regional High School and the district, said in an interview before the ceremony.

Walking through the maroon-and-blue-lined hallways to the gym where he would wait with classmates for the ceremony, friends and classmates were eager to say hello to him and Glamour.

"It's very cool to get to graduate with him. It was an honor to just to get to know him this year and to graduate with him," said Morgan Franden, 17. "As a blind student who is frequently out of school for music things - and graduated early - it's very impressive."

There is a duality to Fiorentino's story, even if eagerness for life is a consistent theme.

He was born four months early and given a 3 percent chance to live by doctors. He was in an incubator and at the hospital for seven months, undergoing 72 blood transfusions, 12 major surgeries, bleeding of the brain, and a necessary increase in oxygen that left him blind.

Despite all that in the past, Fiorentino graduated a year early from high school. A pianist and vocalist, he's heading to Berklee College of Music in Boston in the fall with a thirst for knowledge and experiences in a city and campus he can't see but has come to know over the last three summers at camp.

"He likes to be a little ahead of everybody," Fiorentino's father, also named Rocco, said, laughing. "He's a little impatient."

"Back then it was taking it hour by hour. Every day was that precious, whether he survived or not," said Tina Fiorentino, Rocco's mother. "Why am I excited? To see the progress he has made over the years to get to this day."

The younger Rocco has an impressive resumé. He is an ambassador for his family's Little Rock Foundation, which provides help for children who are blind or severely visually impaired. He lobbied the New Jersey Legislature to commit $1.2 million to braille education. He has won numerous awards, and has had the opportunity to jam with Stevie Wonder and on Sesame Street. (He helped Elmo get over his fear of blind people.)

"My mom wasn't allowed to touch me . . . because of how critically sick I was when I was born," he said in explaining what he sees as the source of his love of jazz. "So they put a tape recorder in my incubator."

A year ago, Fiorentino was given a guide dog, an energetic black lab. For all of Glamour's energy and bouncing around when it's time to play, she's "a different dog with her harness on," Tina Fiorentino said.

Guide dogs usually aren't given to people until they're 18, the younger Rocco Fiorentino said. But he got her because he has an active lifestyle.

"I'm usually moving and shaking and doing my thing," he said. "And that's important for a service dog. They shouldn't be sitting for a while, immobile."

For all the help he's getting from Glamour, there are some things like crosswalks that just take feeling out - unless you're in a place like Berklee.

"They have put in audible traffic signals at some of the street corners, which is pretty cool," he said. "They're very receptive to the blind, visually-impaired community in general."

Whatever the obstacle, he said, he is determined to learn from the experience.

My family and I "just sort of see every challenge, every difficulty, as a new direction," he said. "Everything has been incredible."


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