Richie Flores is a lead blind ambassador for the Blind Café. He guides an experience where people sit and eat in complete pitch-black darkness.
"The first 15 minutes are always the most challenging for folks, so just know the longer you can hold out and work with us on it, it gets better, OK?" Flores says.
Although Flores hosts events across the nation, his group today is with first-generation students, the first in their family to go to college.
Before heading into the dark room, the students anticipate what to expect.
"I'm anxious that I don't know what's ahead of me, but I'm excited for this experience," one student says.
"Not too comfortable in pitch darkness," another student expresses.
The Blind Cafe is a national organization staffed by people who are either blind or visually impaired, since they already know how to navigate the world without sight. Flores says he lost his eyesight to cancer at the age of 3. But for the guests, it’s an eye opener and a path to better communication skills.
"I really like the vulnerability that people show in the dark, and the community that it brings together," says Casey Papp with the Blind Cafe. "We create a safe container for people to feel uncomfortable."
"Sometimes out in the visual world, we come in with judgments and choose not to talk," Flores says. "And when you're in the dark, and you're having to use your words, you have to talk and have to communicate."
With hands on each other's shoulders, the students walk in.
"The moment you walk in, it's like a whole different world," one student says, while in complete darkness.
"I get really claustrophobic, so I'm feeling that," another student says.
For 15 minutes, the students touch and taste different foods in front of them. Some say they can’t tell the difference between a cherry tomato and a grape. Others say their eyes want to focus on something, but they never do.
After some time and reflection, the lesson suddenly becomes clear.
"Most people they walk out of the dark with something that they didn't have going in, or a different perspective, or some piece of themselves that they didn't realize they weren't in touch with," Papp says.
Eventually, they're back into what's familiar as they walk out of the room.
"When you're in darkness, you experience a whole new sense of who you are, and what you can become. I just really let it flow, and let my emotions run through," one student says of the experience.
"That's what we're doing for college. Just kind of going into it blindly, not knowing what's going to happen or what to expect, but just knowing that it will hopefully make us a better person after and make us stronger," another student says.
Flores says the experience isn't a simulation on blindness or an empathy program.
"It's all about creating community through empowering communication, the enjoyment and what that brings to your soul, and also what music brings to your soul," Flores says.
Sometimes all it takes is a new outlook on life to change your mindset and move forward with positivity.
"Be proud of who you are, your culture, your language, your identities... and just keep going," Flores says.