As Christopher Nusbaum reads Polar Bears Past Bedtime, his right hand moves from left to right on the page, his middle finger running over the Braille characters.
For Christopher, 8, of Taneytown, who has been blind since birth, reading is a passion.
He has finished four books in the past week and is a half-year ahead in reading level.
Next weekend in Los Angeles, Christopher will get to demonstrate his skills in the competitive setting of the Braille Challenge, an academic contest that will test him and 11 other first- and second-graders on spelling, reading comprehension and proofreading.
"These kids don't have many outlets to shine in their Braille skills," said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge and assistant vice president of programs and services for the California-based Braille Institute. "This contest challenges them to work on those skills and be the best, just like the national spelling bee promotes spelling as an important skill."
This year, 61 contestants in first through 12th grades qualified for the finals, at which the top three in each age group will earn savings bonds. The Braille Institute said the 61 finalists represent 17 states and three Canadian provinces.
The winners in each age group also will receive a PAC Mate, a portable computer for the blind and visually impaired.
"I'm looking forward to the contest because it's a learning opportunity," said Christopher, who will enter third grade at Runnymede Elementary School in Westminster in August.
Just as rewarding is the opportunity for the contestants and their parents to talk with each other, Niebrugge said.
"The younger kids get to see and hear the experience of the older kids," Niebrugge said. "It's a whole exercise in building confidence. The parents tell us how much the friendships and camaraderie mean to these kids."
Ray Peloquin, who works with Christopher as one of the county's teachers of the visually impaired, agrees.
"I'm excited about it for the particular reason that he's going to meet 11 other students that are just like him, that are first- and second-graders around the country," Peloquin said.
"We only have five Braille readers in the whole county. For him to meet other kids that are working at the same level as him, that doesn't [normally] happen."
To help other blind children meet young people like them, Christopher, his parents, Mike and Wendy Nusbaum, and Peloquin started the I C.A.N. Foundation -- the name plays off of Christopher's initials -- to subsidize scholarships to camps for the blind.
The foundation, part of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, also raises money for technology and equipment for the blind that often can cost thousands of dollars.
"These camps can be so important for these children to have ... that socialization and also to be able to learn from other blind people," Peloquin said. "There's nothing like having a role model."
Niebrugge said it is important for organizations to assist with the unique needs of blind youth.
"If a kid is cognitively normal and they have vision loss, there's no reason they can't be as successful as anyone else with the proper skills and equipment," Niebrugge said.
Although the school year is over, Christopher and Peloquin have continued to work on orientation and mobility exercises so that Christopher can know where he is at all times and walk around with a white cane.
In the days leading up to the Braille Challenge, Christopher also took home extra proofreading practice, although he is not concerned about winning.
"It's a great honor for me to be in the top 12 this year, and last year in the first grade, being in the top 30," Christopher said. "It doesn't matter [how I do]. I've already proved how good a student I am."