Returning to Elkhart Central

Why Elkhart? “It was the only place that was really prepared to take me.”

Toni (Yewen) Sharp came to Elkhart from Taupo, New Zealand in July 1986 as an exchange student at Elkhart Central High School. Among the many remarkable things about Sharp, one of the most notable is that she is blind. Sharp recently returned to Elkhart to visit with her host family and walk the halls of Elkhart Central.

“The family in Elkhart was prepared for Toni, but the school wasn’t quite as prepared,” said Tom Surface, who welcomed Sharp to Elkhart as her host father. “The administration wanted Toni to attend the Blind School in Indianapolis, but as an exchange student, the experience includes attending a traditional high school. We had to convince the school that this would work.”

“I lost my sight at the age of 13,” said Sharp. “I went to the blind school in New Zealand after I lost my sight. I learned the skills I needed to continue living my life – the things we take for granted, like making a cup of tea. I learned how to use Braille and touch typing, so I could continue my studies. I wanted to return to my regular high school, and after learning a few skills, I did. It was at that time that I thought I might like to be an exchange student.”

Sharp paved the way for future students with disabilities to travel abroad to study. Sharp was the first student with a disability to ever travel through an exchange student program. She and another blind student from New Zealand traveled to America together. Sharp ended up in Elkhart, while her friend ended up in Kentucky.

“I like to challenge myself and to create opportunities. The greatest challenge in coming to Elkhart Central was the number of students. There were about 600 students at the time and the school layout is very different than what I was used to. Elkhart Central has lots of big, wide, open spaces and classrooms, it was a challenge to have all of these areas under one roof.” ADEC, a local organization that advocates for and serves people with disabilities, helped Sharp become familiar with the building. “Negotiating the halls when they were empty was very easy, but once the halls were jam-packed with students, it was really hard. Thankfully, I would usually have one person in my class who was in my next class. I would grab an arm and it made life at Elkhart Central much easier.”

“My favorite part about Elkhart Central was the concert choir,” said Sharp. “It’s not something we have in New Zealand. If I wanted to do something like that back home, it would have been on my own time. To be part of the whole integrated music system was absolutely amazing. The depth of the classes here was also fascinating. In New Zealand, we would have “junior science” or “senior math,” but here, each subject is broken down in depth, with many sub classes like sociology, psychology, and journalism. The specific nature of the classes was something I really appreciated having the opportunity to learn.”

Sharp also thoroughly enjoyed the time she spent at LoveWay when she was in Elkhart, as well as some of the travel opportunities and activities provided by her family. “It was great to have horses to ride, and I had the opportunity to do things I’d never done like cross-country skiing, sailing, and water skiing.”

Overall, Sharp’s experience was an incredibly positive one. “My experience enabled me to further enhance and challenge myself and that was ultimately due to the support base I had with my host family, other family members, and the general support out in the community.”

“It’s quite emotional for me to come back here. I never thought I would be here again, and to be here now almost feels like I’ve done a full circle, and have been given the chance to come back to say ‘thank you’ for the opportunities I had 30 plus years ago. It’s just amazing to be here.”

Sharp now owns a New Zealand-based kitchen company, where she manages all office administration. She is also involved in the New Zealand Toastmasters, became a leader in the organization in 2009, and has recently earned the top position at the national level. Her involvement with the Toastmasters organization has leant itself to traveling to Washington, D.C., Shanghai, Vancouver, Lisbon, Portugal, Dubai, with future travel plans to include Redondo Beach, Denver, and British Columbia.