Kelly Elementary School Student Overcomes Adversity to Inspire Others

Superintendent Jeff Rutzky, Saniyah Wiliams, Kelly Principal Dr. Joanne Pollar and board member Sandra Mordecai recognize Saniyah at BOE meeting. Credits: Cynthia Cumming

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Saniyah Williams, a fifth grader at Kelly Elementary School who loves math and participating in Girls on the Run with her turquoise and pink running shoes, also loves gym classes, recess and jumping rope. The only difference between Saniyah and her fellow students is that she is blind.

Saniyah has retinal detachment, congenital cataracts, pupillary defect, vitreous hemorrhage and hypotony, most likely the result of trauma. She came to her family as a foster child in December 2011. Because Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) records were not the best, it was thought that shaken baby syndrome might have caused the hemorrhage and retinal detachment.

At that time, Saniyah had limited vision in her left eye and poor vision in the right. Her vision deteriorated quickly and her biological mother would not consent to surgery.

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When the mother’s parental rights were terminated in 2014, Saniyah began to undergo several surgeries that were not very successful due to scar tissue. According to her foster mother, Robbin Jordan, Saniyah lost her sight completely a little over a year ago.

Despite the monumental challenges faced at such a young age, Saniyah has not lost her drive to achieve. What makes Saniyah exceptional is that no matter what, she believes that everyone, including herself, should do whatever it takes to reach their goals.

When Saniyah began learning Braille in third grade, she said it was difficult to understand at first. Her school aide, Mrs. Kherri, also began learning Braille to help her. Saniyah has now surpassed Ms. Kherri in her skills and enjoys reading Braille and feeling the textures.

When Girls on the Run, a program designed for young girls to build confidence and character while training for a 5K race, began at Kelly School, Saniyah thought she would enjoy it, and her mom, also a runner, excitedly signed her up.

“My mom was happy when I started to run because my mom and sister sometimes run together and now we all can,” said Saniyah, whose sister, Deianni Galloway, is a senior at Brown University.

Deianni isn’t the biggest fan of running, but is very close to Saniyah and wanted to support her. Her mother, on the other hand, has earned several medals for running that serve as Saniyah’s inspiration. 

Saniyah trains with Girls on the Run at Kelly Elementary School. The group runs often and sometimes stop for water breaks, but Saniyah always wants to keep going. She prefers using a belt attachment and running with her teacher, Ms. Navarro, but also runs with a coach holding her elbow.

“I like to feel free,” she said. “The best thing I can tell people who want to achieve a goal is they must have patience and the will to never give up.”

Seniyah is pictured above with Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky, Kelly Principal Dr. Joanne Pollar and West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) member Sandra Mordecai at a recent WOBOE meeting, where the board recognized her achievements.

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