Daniel Gillen dreams bigger than most teenagers. The 17-year-old high school senior wants to travel to outer space. “I want to work in three dimensions where you can move around freely,” he said. “And I will be able to do it without vision.”
Daniel wants to work as an astronautical engineer after graduating from college in hopes of building space stations or planetary settlements. “Once these things become more practical,” he prefaces. He’s always been fascinated with space and science. Last year, he was one of the few juniors who took physics, a senior level class, at The Beacon School in Manhattan, New York. “I know science very well,” he said. “It was really fascinating.”
Spend any time with Daniel and you’ll quickly realize that he’s a brilliant, sincere and motivated young man. You truly believe he’s capable of achieving his dreams, no matter how farfetched they may seem to the average person. Lighthouse International has been lucky enough to witness Daniel’s maturation every step of the way these past 17 years.
Daniel first came to the Lighthouse when he was four months old. Born with impaired vision after his retinas detached, Daniel’s parents enrolled him in the Early Intervention Program, which helps children develop critical early childhood skills.
He then transitioned into The Ethel and Samuel J. LeFrak School at Lighthouse International, where he learned how to read braille and develop basic social skills. “By meeting new people and feeling like I’m not just confined to home, it helped me enforce my skills later on in my academic career,” he said.
Music played a big role early in Daniel’s life. His father, a songwriter and singer in the Catholic church, taught Daniel how to play the piano when he was five-years-old. “[Music] was deeply engrained,” he said. “I grew up in the church absorbing all of the music and the hymns.”
A week before he turned six-years-old, Daniel began taking piano lessons at The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School at Lighthouse International. During his audition, he played the entire circle of fifths, a musical exercise usually completed by 12-year-olds. “It bowled me over,” remembers Dalia Sakas, Coordinator of the Comprehensive Music Program for Young People at the Music School. “He had an innate understanding of the mathematics of music.”
Ever since then, Daniel hasn’t stopped studying music at the Lighthouse. For the past 10 years, he’s come in almost every Saturday to master the piano, learn how to read braille music and study music theory. “The Music School has made it impossible to imagine a life without the art of music,” he said.
His remarkable commitment to his craft has earned him multiple rewards and accomplishments. When he was in the sixth grade, Daniel received a perfect score in the New York State School Music Association evaluations, a competition he takes part in every year.
While music will always be a passion of Daniel’s, he is now getting ready for the next chapter in his life. Next year, he will go off to college and face a new set of obstacles. Daniel isn’t scared, though. The young man who someday wants to go to space is always looking forward to conquering the unknown. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Daniel these past 17 years, it’s that he’s prepared to meet those challenges head on.
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