Sonoma County Office of Education

Blind student whose home was destroyed in fire to receive donation of new, $5,000 braille computer

11/13/2017 -

Mario Chitwood is a completely blind eighth grade student whose family had just bought their first home three weeks before the fires hit in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa. When the North Bay Firestorm swept through his neighborhood, he lost everything— his house, his family dog, and a handheld, electronic Braille device that helped him navigate the world.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, he will receive a free replacement of the more than $5,000 device, the BrailleSense Polaris Notetaker. The BrailleSense Polaris is a Google certified braille tablet combining traditional notetaker features such as word processing, math, internet and email, with access to Google services such as Google Docs, Drive, Sheets and Classroom, and the ability to download apps from the Google Play Store.

The company that makes this device, HIMS Inc., will present it to Mario at 5:00pm, at a monthly gathering for blind and visually impaired students that takes place at Santa Rosa’s Earle Baum Center, 4539 Occidental Road. The Earle Baum Center serves people with sight loss in the North Bay. The sales representative who will present the Notetaker is also blind.

Neal McKenzie, an assistive technology specialist at the Sonoma County Office of Education, has worked with Mario since third grade. He worked closely with HIMS to secure the donation of the new device for Mario.

“This was the first device I taught Mario and it has become something he absolutely loves and depends on each and every day for normal access,” McKenzie said. “He was even scared to tell us he left it behind when escaping the fire. We all strongly reassured him that his safety was the only thing that we were concerned with and how unbelievably happy we were that his family made it out in time.”

McKenzie added that not only will the device restore some much-needed routine and independence for Mario—it also will mark a positive moment in a very difficult year for the young student. Mario’s family had just bought and moved into their Coffey Park house shortly before the fires began. The home, for a short time, offered a respite from the prior year’s chaos, when Mario and his mother, Cindy, were forced back to Mexico for roughly six months due to a backlog in processing immigration paperwork. During that time they were disconnected from school and family, including Mario’s two-year-old baby brother. This separation affected Mario’s education and caused enormous stress for him and his family. The presentation of the Braille device has provided the family something to look forward to.

“He is very excited,” McKenzie said of Mario’s anticipation to receive the device.

About HIMS, Inc.: HIMS, Inc. is a global leader in Braille and Low Vision Assistive Technology products. For more information: please visit their website at or call Jayne Bassett at 512-837-2000.