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Layla, 11, is among top Braille readers in the U.S.

Layla Hildenbrand, shown taking one of the tests in the Braille Challenge, finished third in the national competition. Layla Hildenbrand, shown taking one of the tests in the Braille Challenge, finished third in the national competition.

MILLS RIVER — Layla is a typical 11-year-old, if a precocious one. She likes to read, play piano and in her free time hang out with friends at the neighborhood pool.

Because of a condition called leber congenital amaurosis, Layla has been blind since birth, though lacking sight has not slowed her down. She finished third in her age category last month in the National Braille Challenge, held virtually this year from the Braille Institute Los Angeles.
The daughter of Jason and Stacie Hildenbrand of Mills River, Layla learned Braille very early and began reading at around age 2 or 3. She started school at Helping Hands preschool, where she first met Rachel Harris. Harris is Layla’s TVI, or teacher of students with visual impairments.
“She’s still her TVI today,” Stacie Hildenbrand said. “She’s a fabulous TVI.”
Hildenbrand also credits Angie Russell, a Braille specialist for the Henderson County school system, for helping Layla.
“She is the one who makes sure all print material is put in Braille for Layla’s school work,” she said. “She is another fantastic resource and reason why Layla has been successful in her education career.”
Mainstreamed at Glenn Marlow Elementary School in Mills River, Layla has thrived. Harris regularly monitors classes to make sure all Layla’s material was in Braille or a tactile form.
“She also helps teach teachers how to adapt material for Layla and then at Glenn Marlow, all the teachers and John Hart, the principal, were amazing at challenging her, taking blindness out of the situation and still teaching the child like they would all the other kids and then Rachel kind of adapted the materials,” Hildenbrand said. “They really challenged her, she’s been in the AIG classes. Academically, she’s top of her class.”
After winning the Braille Challenge for all of North Carolina in February, Layla competed at the national level along with the 49 other finalists from across the U.S. Canada. The challenge tests reading comprehension, speed and accuracy, proof reading and charts and graphs. Layla is a veteran of the national challenge; this year was the third time she’s made it.
“She was shocked (that she won) because she said the tests were very hard and she was very very proud to score third place,” her mom said. In addition to a trophy, she won an iPad that is adapted for use by blind students.
Layla has been taking piano since she was four, and also enjoys swimming and has taken gymnastics in the past. She has a younger sister, Natalie, who is 8. “She is definitely a great role model and Natalie wants to be just like her big sister,” Hildenbrand said. Tracie works as a substitute teacher at Glenn Marlow and Rugby and Jason is a sales rep for a national roofing products company.
Layla starts classes next week to Rugby Middle School, where Harris and Russell will continue to monitor her courses.
“We have always believed that her blindness would not limit her abilities and success,” Hildenbrand said. “And we are beyond proud of her for placing third in the Braille Challenge national competition and we know that despite her blindness she will be able to achieve any goal she sets her mind to.”
Layla has already formed some ideas about what those goals might be.
“She wants to be an author or a dolphin trainer,” Hildenbrand said. On a trip to Clearwater, Florida, the family met Winter, the inspiration for “Dolphin Tale,” the 2011 movie about a dolphin that loses her tail in a crab trap and gets a prosthetic one.