Eight-year-old Maggie Wehrle reads a braille book Monday. Wehrle is the only student from Vancouver Island to compete in this year's Braille Institute Challenge Finals in Los Angeles on June 20.

Victoria girl heads to North American braille competition

Eight-year-old Maggie Wehrle is traveling to Los Angeles to compete in the North American Braille Institute Challenge finals in June.

Maggie Wehrle’s clothes are almost as vibrant and outgoing as her personality.

Walking into the office, eight-year-old Maggie wears a navy blue sweater with flowers and other circular shapes on it, pink and purple-beaded earrings, sneakers with pink laces and a bright pink knapsack.

Her eyes peep over the ridges of her glasses as she speaks.

Maggie, a Grade 2 student at Margaret Jenkins Elementary School and Fairfield resident, was born with rod-cone dystrophy, a genetic eye problem caused by the degeneration of photoreceptor rod and cone cells. Cones and rods change light into electric nerve messages that transfer to the brain through the optic nerve.

She has been blind almost since birth.

But that hasn’t stopped her from challenging herself.

In June, Maggie and her mother Melissa will travel to Los Angeles to compete in the Braille Institute Challenge finals for the first time.

The North American challenge is similar to a spelling bee with spelling, proofreading, reading comprehension, speed and accuracy to see how well they understand braille.

“I’m a bit nervous, but I’m excited,” said Maggie. “I think I’m just excited to travel.”

Maggie beat out more than 1,000 preliminary round contestants from 39 states and four Canadian provinces to make the top 60 in only her second year of braille competition.

But her mother isn’t surprised.

“She’s a bit of whiz when it comes to English vocabulary,” laughed Melissa. “It’s such a big opportunity . . . I am really proud of her, but not surprised. She’s quite smart.”

Maggie, a self-professed book worm, has read numerous books — right now she’s switching between Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

“Over the years, once you get the hang of it, you find it really fun,” said Maggie, adding she also enjoys playing the violin and folding origami.

“She’s got a really big imagination,” said Melissa. “It’s a good stimulant for her. She’ll watch kids shows and stuff like that and she’ll follow by listening and cuing. But [reading is] something that she’ll really just take off with.”

Maggie first discovered the competition from her braille teacher Daphne Hitchcock.

“She has a wonderful outlook on life, she loves learning and is very inquisitive,” said Hitchcock, who has worked with Maggie since kindergarten.

“She has just flown with reading. She’s a hard worker and has really blossomed over the last year with her reading level and abilities.”

Hitchock said they’ve been practicing reading comprehension and proofreading in preparation and although it is her first appearance at the competition, she believes Maggie will do well.

Maggie’s mindset going into the competition is simple: “Just to try hard,” she said. “I really want to continue with it.”

Maggie and Melissa will travel to Los Angeles to compete in the Braille Institute finals on June 20.

 

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