by Vincent Sobotka
At 18, Randy Cook stood at the sill of a window basking in the warmth of the early summer sun. His mind was triggered into a battle between what he had been used to and the unexpected reality of his current situation. The result was a collision between senses and emotions, followed by a temporary stalemate of brain activity before Randy's awareness that the visual beauty of his world would be forever blanketed by darkness would surface. His shift in mentality created a tsunami of internal entrapment. Fear, pain and sorrow kept Randy bed-bound and teary-eyed for the remainder of that crucial day.
The eventual diagnosis was rod-and-cone cell deficiency in the retinas of his eyes, but there was an underlying cause responsible for this demise: Randy was born an albino. But actually, Randall Cook was not born as Randall Cook; he was born Kim Nam Kwan in South Korea on Jan. 11, 1970. During that period in time, much of the Korean nation was stricken with poverty and conflict, robbing many families of the means to care for their own children, and pushing them into orphanages to await adoption.
Kim Kwan spent nearly a decade of his childhood in an orphanage, but it was not due to poverty. Albinism was largely considered a sort of taboo in South Korean society. Kwan's biological parents immediately placed him in Star of the Sea Orphanage. As Kwan's stay at Star of the Sea extended, so did besiege by those living around him. Though Kwan would learn to defend himself and develop the early habits which would foot his hardened personality through peer altercations, he would also experience persistent effects of trauma, developing a keen sense of awareness.
Star of the Sea was near a United States military base and was surrounded by deep woodlands in which the children would play -- against the wishes of the orphanage's administration. In those woods, bullet shell casings and undetonated grenades and mines left over from the Korean War were often found. Randy recounted two particular ventures into the woods. He depicted the first witnessed tragedy as feeling a sense of uneasiness sweeping over him while he and other children headed into an area deeper into the woods, causing him to lag behind the group. Suddenly an explosion occurred that knocked Kwan to the ground. He stood with ringing ears and disorientation to realize that not more than 10 feet from where he stood, a blazing shatter of flesh and bone had erupted as a result of the blast, and in the same instant went the life of a child. During another instance, he spotted a child tossing around an undetonated grenade. Kwan was several feet away and only recognized a dark, roundish object. The grenade detonated and screams of panic filled the air. The child was rushed to the nearest hospital with one of his arms mangled above the wrist. The only treatment available to him was to suture his wounds and protect him from infection.
Kim Nam Kwan was adopted at age 8 by a couple surnamed Cook. He was given the name Randy by his new mother. Randy moved to Royal Oaks, Mich., a town home to a small population and located in the southern peninsula of Michigan, near the border of Wisconsin. Randy belonged to his first real family; two parents, a brother who was also an adopted orphan from Vietnam, and a sister. From then on, he learned to read, write, and speak English, although at a slow pace due to the complexity of the language. Much of his exploration into a foreign tongue was credited to American television. Randy eventually became a fluent speaker of the language, but he often struggled in school as a child, partially due to the information lost in translation. Unfortunately, Randy was not welcomed much differently by the people in Royal Oaks. Physical altercations and teasing were unavoidable, and Randy's attitude continued to toughen, while his personality blossomed into an outspoken, controversial, witty, and sometimes inappropriate individual. He was continuing to survive the only way he knew how, but he spent many years starving for companionship and acceptance.
At age 13, Randy was riding his bike through the neighborhood streets with a friend. Randy rode full speed toward a driveway barricaded with a chain, which he did not see. His throat absorbed all of the impact as the collision into the chain knocked him from his bicycle. For several moments, Randy was barely conscious and unable to breathe. He was rushed to the emergency room. From that day on, Randy would spend several years of his life being examined by various doctors as he and his family frantically attempted to find a diagnosis and a cure for his poor vision.
In 1982, just a few years after Randy was adopted, his parents divorced. Two years later, in 1984, his mother earned a certification to be an ultrasound technician and continued her education until she obtained a bachelor's degree in zoology. Randy's father remarried in 1984. Randy credits his mother as his primary support through his trials from degrading vision. After his parents' divorce, Randy's contact with his father became scarce, eventually turning purposeless for Randy as contacts initiated by his father were typically driven by greed.
At age 15, Randy obtained his first job – running a paper route in the morning before school. He would hold this job for a brief time, even as his vision deteriorated to nearly a blur of shapes, shadows, and colors. By 1988, Randy was in his senior year of high school and his mother had remarried. He continued delivering newspapers for several months by memorizing where the subscribers along his route were located. But as the rod-and-cone deficiency continued to harm his vision, Randy quit the job. His stepfather had immediately shown just as much support for Randy as his mother had for 10 years prior.
When Randy was 19, after completing high school, and after he lost his vision, he entered a rehabilitation program at the Michigan Commission for the Blind in Kalamazoo. It was at the commission where he learned to navigate, using a cane and public transportation, read braille, and perform many other tasks that would allow him to live an independent life without vision. During his rehabilitation, Randy's mobility instructor recommended he use a guide dog. Randy, with his parents' approval, applied for the program, was accepted, and trained with a guide dog. On Oct. 25, 1989, he received his first guide dog, named Shadow.
Shadow quickly became a friend to Randy. At age 20, Randy took Shadow to a local Pizza Hut in Royal Oaks with hopes of finding employment. When he entered the restaurant, he made his intentions clear to the manager who greeted him. She led him to the back office where the two discussed where Randy could fit in their operation. Though Randy was willing to do any work, some would require certain modifications or equipment, and both he and the manager agreed that he would run the dishwasher inside the kitchen. Randy proudly performed his duties for nearly four years, picking up additional hours during extended breaks from Oakland Community College in downtown Royal Oaks.
Randy earned an associate's degree in 1993. He then enrolled in Western Michigan University and relocated to university housing in Kalamazoo, Mich. He retained his job with Pizza Hut until the end of summer break following his freshman year at WMU. After his resignation and his return to campus, Randy was unable to find employment in Kalamazoo; so he depended on student loans to complete his bachelor's degree. Randy majored in sociology and minored in computer science, and graduated in December 1995. In January 1996, Randy returned to WMU to earn a graduate degree in rehabilitation teaching and education with an emphasis on the use of technology. He completed the program in April 1997.
In the late 1990s, Randy bid farewell to his Michigan home, as well as a romantic engagement in which he had been involved, in order to pursue a career with the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, Department for the Blind. His first home away from home was in Peoria, Ill. Tragedy struck again during all of this change as Randy, at the age of 31, had to make the difficult choice to euthanize Shadow. He accounted the depression he accrued from the experience to be at least as bad as the sort he felt during his childhood; but he pushed himself to move on.
Though Randy did graduate to teach technology as a form of rehabilitation, technology then was far less developed than today's standards; thus his new job role also consisted of teaching other visually impaired people the same practices that he had learned more than a decade earlier -- the practices that allowed him to live an independent life. In addition to his work, Randy dove into community activities, such as attending churches, as well as other organized groups. He has admitted to having trouble meeting people, and even further trouble making friends.
After three years in Peoria, Randy transferred, under the same job title, to Aurora, Ill. He believed Peoria was too rural an area to pursue his aspirations. Once settled in Aurora, Randy continued his practice of attending community events. In 2005, the man who adopted Randy nearly 30 years earlier, but kept little contact with him after Randy's adoptive parents divorced, passed away due to complications from obesity (the man weighed 618 pounds and stood 5'8"). Soon after, through a network of friends, an opportunity for Randy to contact his biological mother, whom he had known nothing of, presented itself. Randy issued an open invitation for communication with her, but was denied a response. He accepted it and continued on with his life.
To this day, Randy continues to perform all of the functions of his job. All of Randy's clients are visually impaired, and one job task which has developed over the past decade is the teaching of software that allows such clients to navigate a computer operating system through screen-reading technology. During the hours he is off work, Randy receives door-to-door bus service in order to complete errands, attend group activities, and visit friends. His employer provides Randy with a personal driver when he is required to meet clients at their homes for appointments.
At age 43, Randy has an impressive list of accomplishments and knowledge. He has a master's degree in his field and has successfully worked with a diverse client base, improving hundreds of lives. He is familiar with sign language and has used it when required to help clients who have endured both visual and hearing impairments. They draw signs on Randy's hand and he communicates verbally back to them.
Randy continues to live an independent, healthy, and pleasant life. The division that people tend to create based on one's appearance and physical conditions has never thwarted him. He believes that everybody either has dealt with a condition, presently has a condition, or will someday develop a condition of some kind and that nobody should believe that they are incapable or inferior for such a reason.