This is a story about a student and teachers, so no surprise that it involves the three R’s. But not those three R’s. Instead, this story’s three R’s are refugees, relationships and religion.
And for Muholeza Consolat, a Kelloggsville High School senior and refugee who escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his family at age 11, relationships and religion have been just as important to his educational journey in recent months as reading, writing and arithmetic.
That’s because Muholeza is facing an inherited genetic condition called Stargardt Disease that is slowly stealing his vision.
A disorder of the retina, the disease causes gradual vision loss. The National Eye Institute says that Stargardt’s typically causes vision loss during childhood or adolescence, and that it “causes progressive damage or degeneration of the macula,” a small area in the center of the retina responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision. Although it rarely causes complete blindness, the disease slowly reduces vision to 20/200 or worse, the Eye Institute says.
That description is not news to Muholeza, who has researched the disease thoroughly since his diagnosis. Nor is he unaware of the fact that the disease is not all that uncommon, impacting approximately one in 10,000 people.
Though those who know him best, including his teachers at Kelloggsville and at Kent Career Tech Center, describe him as upbeat, gregarious, motivated and resourceful, his positive nature and inherent optimism can only take him so far as he ponders what might lie ahead.
Future Plans Unknown
On a mild spring day, as he sits in the library of Kelloggsville High School, less than three weeks away from graduation day, he knows his peers are busy making plans for the future, including college, careers and more. But it’s hard for him to imagine next week or next month, let alone what he might be doing next fall as a high school graduate.
“Everything is all over the place,” he says quietly as he and Kelloggsville teacher Susan Faulk talk one day after school. “I just don’t know.”
What gives him some hope is acupuncture treatments he had in New Jersey in the spring, treatments he plans to do again this summer, after graduation.
They are not cheap, and they are considered outside the normal range of treatment for the disease. But Muholeza says the first round did help in slowing the progression of his vision loss and, he believes, even returned some of the vision he had lost. He is eager to give the treatment another try.
‘God has shown me that he will take care of me, and he has put people in my life who take care of me.’— Muholeza Consolat
And he is immensely grateful to Faulk, who organized an impromptu fund drive in the spring that saw Kelloggsville teachers and staff raise more than $4,000 in just over 24 hours to pay for Muholeza’s first trip to New Jersey.
Even now, Faulk gets emotional when she talks about the ways in which the Kelloggsville community responded to the need.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I’m getting teared up just thinking about it. The response was amazing. He is loved, and people want to invest in him.”
Pastor’s Wife, Pastor’s Son Connect
Fault readily admits she is one such person, but she is quick to add that she is one of many.
She first met Muholeza in seventh grade when she was teaching English language learners at Kelloggsville’s middle school. She recalls that when she next saw him in ninth grade, he didn’t need any more support as he had learned English quickly enough in two years to be fine on his own.
But she saw something in him, and he in her, and the two of them have stayed in close contact during his entire high school career, nurturing a deep relationship of respect and appreciation.
“I think maybe because I’m a pastor’s wife,” she says with a small smile.
Muholeza does not disagree.
He in turn is the son of a pastor. And he makes no apologies for the role his faith, and that of his parents and six siblings, has played in his life and in how he faces his current struggles.
“We’re a very religious family, right,” he says. “And I’m grateful that we have very godly parents. Super grateful.”
That religious foundation, he adds, has been a source of support throughout a life that saw him live in the Congo as a young boy before the family had to flee and then spend two years in Uganda waiting for entry to the U.S.
It is a source of support now too as he tries to face his recent disease diagnosis.
Joy and Hope in God and Music
“God gives me hope,” he says simply. And though he often looks down when he replies to a question, with this answer his gaze is steady and his head is upright.
He continues: “One day I was praying, and I decided I was just going to open the Bible and wherever I go is wherever I go. And I open it, and I went to Job.”
He looks at Faulk. He and his family call her Mama Susan as a sign of the deep respect and love they have for her as both a teacher and a family friend.
“Do you know Job?” he asks. She nods.
“After reading his story,” Muholeza continues, “I looked at mine, and I was like, ‘Man, my problems are nothing compared to what Job went through.’”
He also finds joy in music. He plays for his dad’s church, The Way Pentecostal, usually guitar but also sometimes keyboards, and for a church in Grandville called Rock Urban Church. He also is in the band at Kelloggsville where he plays trombone.
“Whenever I’m playing music, I’m not thinking of anything,” he says. “I’m focused. I can play guitar blindfolded, right. Music puts a smile on my face.”
He adds, his face indeed now split with a big smile: “And I’m pretty good at it, I can say.”
Connecting at Tech Center
Troy Anderson, the director of bands at Kelloggsville schools, agrees.
He remembers first meeting Muholeza when the young refugee joined seventh-grade band having never played the trombone or read sheet music. Over the years he has looked on with amazement at his student’s musical gifts.
“I play in several gospel groups around town and was involved in a concert for a church that brought in local groups,” Anderson recalls. “I took Muholeza to come check us out because he is really interested in learning more about gospel music.
“Being his usual friendly self, he made himself right at home during our soundcheck, and he ran into someone he knew in one of the other groups. He ends up borrowing a guitar from one of our guys and plays with that group during their set. The kicker is another group heard him play and asked him to join them on their set too!
“He went as an observer and ended up becoming a performer,” he adds. “He is a versatile young man. I was really proud of him that night.”
His teachers at the Tech Center, where Muholeza has been part of the health sciences and criminal justice program, are equally proud.
A GoFundMe from His Teachers
Ben Hawkins is a criminal justice instructor at the Tech Center, and both he and his colleague Gregg Isenhoff have come to appreciate Muholeza in the short time they have known him. So much so, in fact, that they set up a GoFundMe to raise money for his next set of acupuncture treatments!
‘He is loved, and people want to invest in him.’— teacher Susan Faulk
“He did not come from much,” Hawkins says. “As you can imagine, money is tight in his household. But he still comes in with a smile and a positive attitude every day. When Gregg asked Muholeza if we as a class could help him, Muholeza first said he didn’t need the help but later changed his mind, and when he found out that people were giving money (through the GoFundMe), he got emotional.”
Hawkins says what he and Isenhoff did came pretty naturally.
“We wanted to help in some way,” he says. “Because of the ongoing pandemic, we were unable to do traditional fundraising activities such as a car wash or a bake sale. We knew that we needed to do whatever we could to keep his treatment going.”
For his part, Muholeza is grateful.
“God has shown me that he will take care of me, and he has put people in my life who take care of me,” he says simply. “The relationships I have with so many people also help me to get through it. What else can I do?”