Blind Elkridge student heads to California for national Braille Challenge

For Howard Magazine

When Khloe DeLeon-Talbert’s vision teacher suggested that the Ducketts Lane Elementary School student compete in a national contest for Braille literacy, Khloe’s mom figured: Well, why not?

After all, her daughter, who was diagnosed with eye cancer as an infant and lost both eyes by age 3, is a voracious reader and loves writing stories on her braillewriter.

“Khloe learns very quickly and reads so well,” says Apollonia DeLeon. “She excels at everything she does, and she’s very smart.”

Khloe was set to compete last year, but came down with a fever before the contest and had to cancel. But earlier this year, the 8-year-old from Elkridge blew away the field at a regional competition in Baltimore, a performance that won her a trip to California for the finals of the Braille Institute of America’s 2018 Braille Challenge.

“I was super excited,” an exuberant Khloe says of her Baltimore triumph, adding that she “can’t wait” to compete in the finals on June 15 and 16.

The Braille Institute started its annual challenge 19 years ago to encourage blind students to learn Braille literacy skills, which are considered essential to the academic and employment success of the visually impaired.

Students from first to 12th grade take part in regional competitions across the nation, participating in contests that test such skills as reading comprehension, spelling and proofreading. The top 10 finishers in each of five age groups advance to the finals.

The competition is fierce: Khloe competed against 288 other competitors nationwide in her age group of first- and second-graders, according to Sergio Oliva, director of National Programs and Youth Services for the Braille Institute.

Besides boosting invaluable Braille skills, Oliva says, the challenge provides a competitive and social outlet for a population that often lacks both.

“A lot of parents tell us, ‘This is our kid’s Olympics,’ ” Oliva says. “And the sense of community they get is strong — it’s a place where the children are able to make friends.”

Apollonia DeLeon seconds that notion. Her daughter, she said, is the only blind student at Ducketts Lane in Elkridge. But at the Baltimore competition, held at the Maryland School for the Blind, she spent time with scores of her peers — and loved it.

“She was just so happy,” Apollonia says. “She told me, ‘I want to go to this school. I want to be around people like me.’ ”

Winners in all age groups at the California finals will get a special mini-iPad valued at $3,800, Oliva said. But every competitor, he said, gets a swag bag of goodies and, perhaps, the social and competitive experience of a lifetime.

Win or lose, Team Khloe — which will also include her 10-year-old brother, Jayden, and her godmother — can’t wait for the trip.

“It’s still kind of hard for me to get used to the fact that she’s blind,” Apollonia says. “But when something like this happens, and she shows me how smart she is, I’m like, ‘Why am I being sad that she’s blind when she’s doing all of this?’ ”

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