WILLIAMSPORT — A cacophony of sounds reverberates throughout the expansive lab. Sparks emanating from rows of booths color the facility. Motion is constant as students and teachers navigate to the next project while a parade of visitors watches the action unfold.
Bustling activity, bright lights and loud noises usually are disconcerting for Destiny R. Barto. But on this morning, like many of her days at Pennsylvania College of Technology, she has shelter from all distractions. The pink hood enveloping her head provides a sanctuary, as she grasps a welding rod and strikes an arc on a long piece of metal.
The resulting path of weld beads is much smoother than the one she followed to arrive at this moment. Obstacles littered that path from the day she was born in Elmira, New York.
“I really have to stop and think about what I have done in order to feel accomplished,” she said. “Most of the time, I’m focused on the things I have to do. There’s a lot to do.”
During the next several weeks, the Dean’s List student will complete her senior project, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in welding and fabrication engineering technology, begin her professional career and marry her high school-turned-college sweetheart. Barto also will continue her role as chief caregiver to her ailing adoptive mother.
Her achievements are built on a turbulent past that provided plenty of excuses to fail. Her embrace of challenges and responsibilities belies the background of someone who spent the majority of her life haunted by an undiagnosed disorder.
At 2 days old, Barto was placed in foster care with an elderly couple from Wyalusing. Two years later, that same couple adopted her.
“They were 67 and 68 years old when they adopted me,” Barto said. “They were at an age when most people retire and get a cat or dog. They got a kid.”
Their age and Barto’s status as “adopted” led to persistent bullying during elementary school. She lost half of her support system at 7 when her adoptive father died. In the ensuing years, the bullying intensified.
“I was darker (Barto is half Hispanic). I was chubby, and I wore glasses,” she said. “I had a lot going against me.” Including something hidden from Barto herself.
She became increasingly isolated, as interpersonal interactions left her confused and embarrassed. Processing questions and information and offering immediate, satisfactory responses proved difficult. Long pauses led to awkward exchanges and being labeled “weird” by classmates.
“My mom sent me to see the school therapist, who told me I was kind-hearted and too sensitive and that I needed to get tougher skin,” she recalled.
Barto responded by “shutting down” and rarely speaking to the other kids at school.
On this day, that’s hard to fathom. Barto exudes confidence in approaching a seemingly shy prospective student who tentatively walks through the welding lab during Penn College’s Open House. Within a few minutes, she transforms the young man from passive observer to active participant.
Barto helps him don the appropriate gear and delivers a hands-on lesson. Her teaching aid is her senior project – a bench she is manufacturing for Williamsport’s Brandon Park. A short safety overview culminates with the visitor ready to make his first weld.
“Destiny has a very strong work ethic and is extremely organized,” said welding instructor Ryan P. Good, who conversed with the student prospect’s parents while Barto gave her impromptu lesson. “She also does an excellent job in bringing out the best in others. Her passion is contagious.”
Barto discovered welding when seeking refuge from her high school, where she excelled academically but felt like an outcast. A tour of her school district’s career and technical center prompted her to register for “metal engineering” during her junior year. She enjoyed playing with Legos and building things as a child, and her mother had recently suggested engineering as a career path.
“I decided at that moment that I was going to be a welder. I had no idea what welding was,” she said with a laugh. “Before investing $500 into equipment, my mom made me go back and watch welding for a day to make sure it was the right thing for me. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ I got the equipment, and off I went.”
Barto’s lack of experience caused initial heartache. She admitted to bouts of hiding and crying in a welding booth, overcome by anxiety generated by the loud environment and fear of the unknown. Eventually, she said some classmates acted as “big brothers” in assisting her, and the teacher “went out of his way” to build her confidence.
“He taught me that if I sang while welding that it was like the rhythm of welding,” she recalled. “I got to be really good at that, singing while welding.”
Her welds became a hit. By the time she graduated, Barto was among the best welders in her class, thanks in part to 12 welding credits she completed through Penn College NOW, the institution’s dual-enrollment program allowing high schoolers to earn college credits for free. That positive experience led her to enroll at the college for welding and fabrication engineering technology.
Her first year was a struggle. Earning high grades proved difficult, and social interactions remained a challenge, despite her work as a Sunday school teacher and Girl Scout leader. Tempted to leave college, Barto sought help from Counseling Services.
Today, she is the one helping. Barto guides the Open House visitor as he successfully lays a couple weld beads on her bench project. The prospective student is grinning ear to ear when he removes his welding hood and thanks Barto for enthusiastically sharing her expertise.
Nearby, Good concludes his conversation with the young man’s parents.
“His mother and father were so amazed, as this was a side of their son that they had never witnessed before,” Good said. “The experience left an impression that they will never forget.”
Moments earlier, the mother revealed to Good that her son is on the autism spectrum and typically has a hard time dealing with people and coming out of his shell.
Barto can relate. She shares the same diagnosis.
She discovered that when she followed the suggestion of Counseling Services and contacted Autism Diagnostic Evaluations Resources & Services, which diagnosed her as autistic.
Barto finally had an answer to why she was “different.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, “autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication.”
“It was a huge relief to receive the diagnosis,” she said. “All my life, I had people telling me that I was just being dramatic, or it was all in my head. I’m not making excuses for myself, but there’s a reason behind the things I do.”
The diagnosis allowed Barto to receive assistance from Disability Services at Penn College, such as extra time on tests and assignments, and when needed, a note taker.
“I probably wouldn’t have stayed in college if it wasn’t for all the help I’ve gotten from Counseling Services, Disability Services and the teachers,” she said. “They all made me feel like I could succeed.”
The encouragement and accommodations have helped her flourish in the classroom with outstanding grades and in the lab where she displays “excellent eye-hand coordination, welds beautiful welding beads, and has great finishing skills with grinding and polishing,” according to Timothy S. Turnbach, instructor of welding.
Those attributes are evident in her 8-foot metal bench, featuring to-scale paw-print cutouts of critters commonly found in Brandon Park.
“Destiny used the skills she learned to design and build a beautiful piece of artwork that is also functional as a bench,” Turnbach said. “I really like how she added some Pennsylvania nature to it. She had tremendous dedication and enthusiasm working on her project.”
Barto embraces hard work because the act of welding is an effective shield against external elements and internal strife.
“It’s a peaceful feeling when you have your hood on,” she described. “Then your screen goes dark to protect your eyes, and all you see is this little green light, and that’s what you focus on. You have so much to think about, everything that goes into welding. There’s no room to think about anything else, or you’re just going to mess up. So, at that moment in time, it’s very freeing not to worry about everyday stuff.”
“Stuff” in the coming weeks is anything but “everyday” with graduation, her marriage to Michael L. Sarno Jr. (an information technology: technical support technology emphasis student from Towanda), and her first job as a welder/fabricator at High Steel Structures in Williamsport. She also will look after her adoptive mother, who has macular degeneration and other health issues.
Within the next few years, Barto hopes to become a certified welding inspector and imagines one day returning to the college to teach. With a sly smile, she also revealed that she “can’t wait” for her high school reunion to show all her classmates what she has become.
“My mom tells me every day that she’s proud of me,” she said.