By Shawn Chitnis

CONIFER, Colo. (CBS4) – The yearbook staff at Conifer High School surprised a student graduating this month by presenting him with a special gift on Friday. They want him to take part in a tradition all graduating seniors enjoy each spring.

“It’s crazy, I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Randy “RJ” Sampson. “I was sort of like, ‘please don’t design the entire yearbook for me.'”

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Sampson is blind and wondered during his freshman year if they could make a version of the yearbook he could read. The instructor at the time did not know if it was possible, it was only her first year taking the lead of the yearbook program. But she never forgot the request and made it come true in time for his senior year.

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“He asked her kind of jokingly, ‘Are you going to make me a braille yearbook?’” explained Laurel Ainsworth, a senior also graduating this year and the editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

Ainsworth had to oversee the project to make Sampson’s wish come true along with her adviser, Leslie Thompson. Planning for the yearbook began in April of 2018 and they had to complete the finished product early to then create a special edition with braille pages. They also used an app to cue certain audio recordings and videos when someone hovers their smartphone over photos in the book.

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“It just made the book completely accessible for him so he can enjoy it just as much as the rest of the students,” Ainsworth said.

The process helped the students learn a new editing software and challenged them to take on another responsibility beyond the high expectations senior classes always have for their yearbook. Ainsworth says she was relieved to finish the book and is proud of what her team published for the Class of 2019.

“I hope they will be able to relive these good memories,” she said. “It’s like a time capsule looking back.”

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Each year, on the day the yearbooks are distributed to the senior class, the future graduates go on a “Rite of Passage” in the gym. They walk down a rope line with staff on either side congratulating them. Then the remaining classes move from their old section that say “Freshmen” and “Sophomores” to their new seating assignment with “Juniors” and “Seniors” above the risers.

But before all of those traditions could begin, Ainsworth and her fellow yearbook team members were out on the court in front of their whole school. She told the story of Sampson’s request without revealing too many details all at once.

“There’s a special surprise we have for you,” she said.

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After explaining that he asked for a braille yearbook, she revealed they had indeed made one and presented it to Sampson in front of all his peers.

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“I’m proud to say we’ve done it,” she added.

The room erupted with cheers as Sampson was asked to come receive his yearbook and walked back to his seat with a gift he never expected would be part of his graduation.

“It really means a lot to me,” he told CBS4. “The community here is really so loving.”

After a special video made by the yearbook staff played in the gym, the seniors began walking down the path lined with balloons and signs from one end of the room to the other, Sampson joining at the end of the line. Everyone congratulated him and commented on his special gift.

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“I’m really happy I was able to do with my friends,” he said after finishing the “Rite of Passage” with his classmates. “It’s absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to read it.”

Sampson learned to read braille in middle school but did not need to use the method for a few years, he was shocked to read it again in his yearbook. He showed it to the visual aid staff at the school, who helped the yearbook staff create the pages inserted into his book.

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“The best part of my senior year was being able to enjoy it with my friends, I’m going to miss them,” he said. “I think it’s really important to be able to continue through life and improve yourself as a person.”

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The senior class will graduate on May 18 and Sampson plans to attend CU Boulder studying Computer Science Engineering after high school. He looks forward to turning the page on the next chapter of his life. But on this day, he also took time to appreciate the theme of the yearbook, “More Than Meets The Eye” and the special meaning it has in his own life.

“I think it’s a critical aspect of life overall,” he said. “What’s usually there, there’s always more to it, you have to go deeper than face value.”

Shawn Chitnis

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