Brooke Bell is a celebrity.
The fourth-grader, who has thick, waist-length hair and a smile that lights up her face, is the only student in Maryland to win a Yes I Can award from the Council for Exceptional Children.
Brooke was one of 27 winners chosen from more than 300 applications worldwide, and one of two winners out of 22 applicants in the technology category.
"I already know Brooke is special," said her mother, Stacy Bell of Severn. "It just kind of shows how special she really is."
Brooke was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic defect characterized by bone fusions. She has undergone multiple surgeries on her skull to enable her brain to grow, and also on her hands to create fingers. Her vision and hearing are impaired, and she has respiratory problems as well.
But Brooke's spirit is unbreakable.
When Brooke first arrived at the Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville at age 3, she could not walk or talk. Now, with the help of a Mercury computer programmed for Brooke with Speaking Dynamically Pro software, she can communicate, learn and even tell jokes.
The starting page of her computer screen has options such as "Home," "School," and "I want." Each of those options leads to more screens. Brooke is adept at navigating the system.
For example, if she wants to tell you about her dog, Caesar, she needs to first touch the "home" screen, and then pass through several other screens before she gets to the prompt she wants. She pushes it, and the computer speaks for her, saying she has a dog named Caesar that she loves.
The software does more than enable her to communicate. It is also teaching her to read. Many of the prompts are in the form of pictures, and when Brooke touches them, words or sentences are spoken. But in the case of her dog, the word Caesar is written out. Brooke recognizes the word, even when the prompt is moved to different spots on her computer screen.
"Even though she may not necessarily say her alphabet, she is really doing a lot with actual word recognition," said Stacy Bell.
Brooke will never speak normally because of deformities in her mouth, but she can say some words. Her speech has improved since she acquired the software about two years ago, said Nancy Horne, a teacher who selected the computer, programs it and helps Brooke use it.
Many of the children at Ruth Parker Eason use similar speaking devices. Brooke started with a different device when she first came to the school, which is for students age 3 to 21 with moderate to severe disabilities.
One of the first phrases that it was programmed to say was: "Beep, beep, I'm coming through," Horne said. "That sums her up."
"This child has been through more than anyone can imagine," Horne said. "What's remarkable about Brooke is that she has fought to learn, to communicate and to grow, both physically and mentally."
Horne continued: "She's my hero. I think the world of her. I'm very, very proud of what she has achieved because of her spirit."
Brooke, 9, can also walk now, and has become more social. After eating lunch at the school, she throws her milk carton in the garbage and puts her tray in the sink. She uses her computer screen to tease her teachers, saying other ones are her favorites and then laughing. "There was a time when she would have cried and just wanted to leave the room," said the school's principal, Paulette Tanoue.
The award ceremony for the 27 Yes I Can winners is scheduled for April 4-6 in Salt Lake City. The school is trying to raise money so the Bell family - parents Stacy and Steven, Brooke and her 11- year-old sister, Holly - can attend.
Five of Brooke's educators are hoping to go as well, including Tanoue, Horne, Amy Guerke - Brooke's teacher for the past two years - and two preschool teachers.
Guerke said when teachers in the school were asked to nominate students for the award, "there was no question" that Brooke would be their choice. "There are some kids that everybody knows, and she's one of them," she said.
"Needless to say, when we found out Brooke was selected, we were thrilled. ... She'll have her moment in the spotlight."
Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, said applicants ranged in age from 2 to 22 and were chosen because they were experts in computers or had used computers to advance their education. Brooke falls into the second category, she said.
Awards were also given in the categories of Academics, Arts, Athletics, Community Service, Employment, Extracurricular Activities, Independent Living Skills and Self-Advocacy. The council established the awards in 1981 to recognize people who had overcome barriers.
Stacy Bell said her daughter has always been a fighter. "She's just a very strong-willed little girl and always happy, always wakes up happy, always smiling."
When she was born, the family's top concern was her health. "Every time she had a surgery, she just bounced back," Bell said. "She's amazed her doctors."
"She's definitely very special," Bell said. "And she's taught our family a lot, with how strong she is."