by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAWOOD — Brooke Petro is gradually losing her eyesight.
A seventh-grader at Church of the Nativity School in Leawood, she understands her future will be filled with challenges.
But when asked how she finds the strength to face that future, this beautiful young girl answers with confidence and conviction:
“I walk by faith, not by sight.”
This verse from the Second Letter to the Corinthians is Brooke’s favorite, and her Catholic faith is her bedrock.
Her mother, Lyn Petro, has learned to type Braille so she can translate Brooke’s schoolbooks, as well as her religious education materials and weekly Mass hymns.
“Part of the challenge with [visually impaired] kids is helping them be literate in our faith,” she said. “They should be able to know and love Jesus.”
Knowledge is power
When Brooke was 18 months old, her parents learned she was visually impaired due to a retinal condition and made the decision to have her learn Braille as soon as she started preschool.
“We wanted Brooke to be able to choose what she wants to do with her life,” said Lyn. “And the only way she can do that is if she’s literate.”
At this point, Brooke has enough vision to read print.
“But it has to be really big and it takes me a very long time,” she said. “Braille is much faster because I can read it with my hands, and I don’t have to strain my eyes.”
Braille literacy gives the blind a great advantage in life, especially when it comes to education and career opportunities.
To promote Braille literacy, the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization in southern California, developed a national competition for students in first through twelfth grade called the Braille Challenge
Each year, thousands of students compete in preliminary Braille Challenge events throughout the United States and Canada, but only the top 50 are invited to the Braille Challenge in Los Angeles.
Five years ago, Brooke qualified and placed second in the youngest age group.
“It was really nerve-racking,” she said. “I remember feeling sick when I was waiting for them to call the names.
“But it was a great experience and I knew I wanted to come back.”
She did come back, qualifying and placing first in her age group every year since.
Two for the road
This year, another student from the archdiocese will join Brooke at the Braille Challenge.
Jude Nickson, a second-grader at Trailwood Elementary in Overland Park and member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, will be competing in his first Braille Challenge.
He’ll also be taking his first plane ride.
“I’m really actually kind of nervous,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be a good time there.”
Jude is the third of six children. When he was born, the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired in Kansas City, Missouri, put his parents in touch with the Petro family and they became friends.
Like the Petros, the Nicksons wanted their child to learn Braille so he could experience life to the fullest.
“So much of what we learn and understand about our world is learned visually,” said Jude’s father, Matt Nickson. “If Jude has the ability to read a book that paints great pictures through words, he will have a far greater ability to connect with the world around him.”
Braille literacy will also open doors to independence for Jude.
“There are some professional paths that are not going to be possible for Jude,” said Matt. “But if he becomes literate through Braille, there are really many routes where he can thrive and be very successful professionally.”
Brooke and Jude, along with two other qualifying students, practice for the Braille Challenge at Alphapointe, a nonprofit in Kansas City, Missouri, that provides rehabilitation services to the visually impaired.
At the challenge, both will compete in tests on reading comprehension, spelling and proofreading.
Brooke will have additional tests in speed and accuracy and decoding charts and graphs.
Beyond competition, the Braille Challenge is an opportunity for visually impaired children to bond.
“We don’t treat each other as competitors,” said Brooke. “We treat each other as friends.”
Strength in faith
Through the joys and struggles of raising a visually impaired child, both families have found strength in their Catholic faith.
“Jude has revealed God’s goodness in a way that’s enlivened our faith and made us ever more trusting in God’s work and in the ways and areas in which God can penetrate your heart,” said Matt.
“Curé has been a tremendously compassionate and supportive community,” he added. “We thought this before Jude was born, but have certainly felt the arms of the community since Jude has been a part of our family.”
After Brooke was diagnosed, Lyn naturally questioned why this happened to her child.
“But as we’ve gone along on our journey with Brooke,” she said, “it’s made me realize I’m very thankful for my faith.
“There are some tough moments when you have a visually impaired child and I can rely on my faith then. And I also can teach my child there will be rough moments in life, but God is always with you.”
The lesson has been well learned.
“When I’m having a rough time, I’ll go home and pray,” said Brooke. “It helps me get through a lot of challenges.”
There is a saying within the blind community that speaks volumes: “Love is a color only the blind can see.”
Every day, Brooke and Jude have to trust others to support and include them.
When asked how he wants sighted kids to treat him, Jude said simply, “Just ask me to play with you.”
That’s at the core of an important lesson God is allowing Brooke and Jude to teach.
“In the areas of compassion and service to others,” said Brooke’s mother, “kids realize that just because this person has a disability doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. “Those are the areas where I think Brooke and Jude are opening the eyes of others.”