Stephen Kissel did what anyone would do for a friend moving into a new apartment -- he offered to help -- even though he's blind.
The friend, Scott McDermott, was surprised and a little skeptical. But he had seen Stephen's skill and determination in the past, so he invited him over.
"He completely organized all my cabinets by touch," said Scott, 44, of St. Louis. "The plates, the pots, the measuring spoons, everything. They're much more organized than they've ever been.
"I will never doubt Stephen again. He made a believer out of me that day."
Stephen, 25, a Collinsville native who lives in St. Louis, has spent his life impressing people, from relatives to employers, teachers to ministers.
He earned a bachelor's degree in history at McKendree University and a master's degree in history at St. Louis University, graduating with honors.
Now he's working on a doctorate in American history at SLU. (Scott is in the same program.) He has a part-time job and lives in his own apartment.
"Stephen doesn't play the pity-party game," said his mother, Cathy Kissel, 54, of Collinsville. "He never is like, 'Poor me, I'm blind. I can't do things.' He doesn't sit around moping. He never has."
Making his mark on campus
Stephen recently gave a presentation to a SLU education class on how faculty and staff can better serve visually impaired students.
He talked mainly off the cuff but periodically referred to notes in Braille.
"The most important thing is, don't panic," he said. "There is a solution for everything. It just requires a little creativity and looking at things from a different perspective."
Stephen recalled how his mother made maps of McKendree and SLU out of Legos so he could "feel" the campuses and learn his way around.
Stephen uses a cane to find his path -- swinging it from side to side, tapping on sidewalks and curbs -- and listens for sounds of traffic or crowds.
He usually takes cabs to get to other business or shopping districts.
"It's a little frightening when you get lost," he said. "But I've learned to search for landmarks, and the first person you see, no matter how intimidated you are, you ask them, 'How do I get where I'm going?'"
Stephen reads as a lector at Mass and goes to dinner with friends and family members. He enjoys movies, plays and concerts.
Stephen believes it's vitally important for blind people, including college students, to leave their comfort zones and get involved in the community.
"That's how you meet people," he said. "That's how you make friends. That's how you find your niche."
Growing up in a blur
Stephen is the son of Cathy, a homemaker, and Tom Kissel, who works in information technology for SSM Health Care. Brother Mark, 20, is a junior at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
Stephen wasn't born blind, but he has had eye problems all his life.
Doctors removed congenital cataracts when he was 4 months old and prescribed baby-size glasses.
"He looked like a little professor," his mother said, noting he got plenty of double takes in public.
Growing up, Stephen could see shapes and colors and read up close. He underwent multiple surgeries, developing glaucoma in junior high.
Cathy and Tom focused on their son's strengths, not his disability. He rode a tandem bike, hiked on family vacations and earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
Stephen's can-do attitude amazed Patrick Murphy, who served as his confirmation sponsor and one of his religion teachers at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Collinsville.
"When he lectors at church, he doesn't miss a beat," said Patrick, 52, of Collinsville, assistant director of radiology at Memorial Hospital. "He reads from the Old Testament and the New Testament (in Braille). He never stutters. It's like he has it memorized."
Adapting to darkness
Stephen graduated from Collinsville High School in 2005, despite towering challenges.
He lost sight his senior year, the result of detached retinas. It happened suddenly -- going from bad to worse to gone within 24 hours.
"It was something that you know might happen, but you hope it won't," he said. "I have to give my family and my faith credit for pulling me through."
Stephen adapted to his new world with help from a mobility coach and an elderly blind woman from St. Louiswho shared her insight on technology and local resources.
He also traveled to Colorado for an eight-week, independent-living course that taught everything from housecleaning to barbecuing.
"You don't buy the liquid laundry detergent," he said. "You buy the tablets. They are already pre-measured. The same goes for the dishwasher."
Stephen never considered not going to college. He wants to be a history professor.
The subject of his dissertation is the Westward Expansion and Settlement of the Northwest Territory from the perspective of how religion helped to strengthen the communities and infrastructure of the region.
Technology is key to Stephen's success at school.
He has a computer and cellphone that "talk" to him. He gets audio versions of books or has print versions scanned and converted into text files that can be read with adaptive software.
"We graduate students love to complain about our workload, all the reading we have to do and all the papers we have to write," Scott said. "I've never heard Stephen complain, not once, even though it's probably 10 times more difficult for him than it is for the rest of us.
"He maintains the same standards. He writes the same papers. He attends the same lectures. He has the same workload. There's no special treatment. He wouldn't stand for it."
Living on his own
Stephen rents a small loft apartment on the second floor of a converted warehouse with tall ceilings and exposed ductwork.
He keeps it neat and organized out of necessity. Braille labels help him identify cans of food, clothing, CDs and appliance settings.
"I don't do a ton of cooking in the oven," he said. "I can do Crock-Pot recipes or spaghetti. That's fairly simple."
Stephen works for Lighthouse for the Blind Industries, an agency that helps blind people with employment, education and support services.
He's a consultant to arts and entertainment venues -- the Fox Theatre, St. Louis Science Center, The Muny and Laumeier Sculpture Park -- making facilities and attractions more accessible.
"He just does an excellent job," said his Lighthouse supervisor, Angie Yorke, 40. "He's so passionate."
Stephen recommends features such as "descriptive audio," which allows blind people wearing headphones to hear verbal descriptions of action, scenery and props, in addition to lines and lyrics.
He also has written a St. Louis tourism guide for the blind, indicating which places have accessible tours or Braille signs.
"It just helps them plan and enjoy their visit," Angie said.
Stephen has learned the importance of utilizing resources. Supermarkets generally can spare an employee to find items on his grocery list, and theaters have ushers to get him to his seat.
But Stephen also is on a mission to educate the public, showing by example that blind people can make big contributions.
"He is absolutely determined," Scott said. "In his own gentle way, he refuses to be stopped by any impediment. He's determined to lead a full and normal life, and he just makes it happen. It's incredibly inspiring."