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Oldsmar girl will compete in National Braille Challenge

Michelle Yongue, 10, of Oldsmar has qualified to represent Florida in the National Braille Challenge.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Michelle Yongue, 10, of Oldsmar has qualified to represent Florida in the National Braille Challenge.

OLDSMAR — When 10-year-old Michelle Yongue was in kindergarten, she had no interest in learning braille.

"She just wanted to be like the other kids and read large print, very large print," said Kelly Hendrickson, who has taught braille to the rising fifth-grader since she started elementary school.

Eventually Michelle realized that by decoding braille she could keep up with — even surpass — her classmates at Forest Lakes Elementary School, where the legally blind 10-year-old is an honor-roll student in a regular classroom.

She has become so proficient in deciphering the embossed dots that she was one of 60 chosen from a field of more than 500 to compete Saturday in the eighth annual National Braille Challenge, an academic competition for the visually impaired in Los Angeles.

Michelle also made it to the finals in 2006.

"I want to win this time. Last time I was really disappointed," because she didn't finish in the top three in her age group, she said.

All participants receive trophies, but the winner gets a $2,000 savings bond and a PAC Mate, a pocket PC with a braille display worth about $3,800. The second- and third-place finishers get $1,000 and $750 savings bonds, respectively.

"If I win the PAC Mate I'll donate it to the Lighthouse," Michelle said. "I'll keep the money, though."

The Lighthouse of Pinellas is an organization serving the blind and visually impaired.

Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge, said the competition encourages students ages 6 to 19 to hone their braille skills.

"Braille is a unique medium. There aren't a lot of places where it is fun and this (challenge) makes it fun and enticing," she said.

Michelle has been training like an athlete for the contest, which will test her spelling, reading comprehension and proofreading abilities.

Her mother, Su Kun Yongue, said she spends two hours a day reading braille books and practicing on her Perkins Brailler, a device similar to a typewriter that produces patterns of dots.

By pressing different combinations of the six keys, Michelle can create any of the 232 symbols, including contracted words and punctuations, in the braille code.

"This competition is good because it makes her feel proud and important," said Mrs. Yongue.

She said her daughter, who was born with an eye condition called rod-cone dystrophy, sometimes is the victim of bullying.

"Kids pick on her and call her names," she said. "But we teach her, 'Accept yourself, do your best and love who you are. You are a very smart girl.' Now she's a tough cookie."

When she's not studying, Michelle participates in swimming, gymnastics, beep ball, horseback riding and bike riding. She loves to wiggle down the street on her RipStik.

Win or lose, Michelle and her family plan to go to Disneyland on Sunday.

Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

Oldsmar girl will compete in National Braille Challenge 06/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 10:53am]
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