IDAHO FALLS — For the first time ever, 7-year-old Donna “Mei Mei” Hill of Pocatello has met other blind children like herself.
The opportunity came through a new summer camp offered by the National Federation of the Blind called Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL).
Mei Mei and three other children from eastern Idaho have been busy working with NFB volunteers to increase their level of Braille fluency, as well as practicing life skills such as moving with a cane, tying their shoes, preparing meals and of course making friends.
The Pocatello resident said her favorite part of program so far has been the group outings — which have taken her to places like the Tautphaus Park Zoo and a local fire station.
“We cover the whole spectrum to help them be more successful in life,” said Vickie Bateman, president of the NFB’s Snake River Valley chapter in Idaho Falls.
The 2-week summer camp held at the Idaho Falls Parks & Recreation Skyline Activity Center started Monday and ends Aug. 9.
Mei Mei’s mother Teri Hill said her daughter, like most children at the camp, isn’t completely blind. She learned to read print at an early age just like other kids, but her extremely poor vision only allows her to do so for a few minutes.
That’s why the focus of BELL is on learning to read Braille, because eventually children with low vision can progress to total blindness.
“Our visually impaired kids have a harder time than the totally blind,” said Letty Eaton, vision specialist for Pocatello School District 25 who has worked with Mei Mei since age 3.
She explained children like Mei Mei struggle with wanting to use the little sight they have and often prefer to strain their eyes to read rather than relying on touch.
That’s where the sleep shades come in handy.
One component to learning Braille is using the sleep shades because they create total darkness, leaving the children to focus on their sense of touch. Mei Mei practiced using the sleep shades during her reading of “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” and while typing on the Braille writer.
Eaton said district-wide there are about 19 visually-impaired children. Since most are placed in regular classrooms, her job is to work with their teachers to adapt lessons and assist with their special needs. She also does assessments for the district to help them understand the extent and severity of each child’s blindness.
This is the first time the BELL program has been offered in eastern Idaho. Bateman explained the Boise chapter of the NFB held a successful program last year that spurred interest in the Idaho Falls area.
Maryland was the first state to initiate the BELL program in 2008. Now close to 20 states are offering it, with some states like Idaho offering two programs state-wide.
Teri said since bringing home Mei Mei from China at the age of 17 months, the NFB has been “a wonderful resource” for parents like herself who find themselves raising a blind child.
“There is this learning curve and your first panic is ‘What won’t she be able to do?’ but actually she’ll do everything every other child does—the only real ‘Won’t be able to do’ is driving and that’s an inconvenience not a handicap,” said Teri.
“We learned quickly that she’s not handicapped, she’s a little inconvenienced and we have to work around some things.”
Teri said Mei Mei is proud of her blindness and sees herself as being “super powered” rather than being hindered. Her social daughter enjoys being around kids and making new friends and is used to drawing a lot of attention.
In addition to her visual impairment, Mei Mei has Albinism, a congenital disorder that left her with a lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Her Chinese features are still there, but in the form of strawberry-blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes.
In just four days of attending the BELL program, Teri said Mei Mei’s Braille skills have returned to the level they were at before she left school for summer break. And she no longer fights using the cane to get around like she used to now that she’s learned it’s a positive thing and other children like her are using it too.
“She loves it. She can hardly wait to come home every day and tell us everything,” said Teri. “I’m sure her teachers are going to be very glad she went to this program.”