Visually impaired student gets chance to attend space camp

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 5, 2012 

Heidi Jackson became interested in space kind of by accident during the third grade.

"I have always been interested in dogs, but the library ran out of dog books," said the 11-year-old from Richland. "So I looked at space books."

The Chief Joseph Middle School sixth-grader is fascinated by zero gravity and has models of the solar system dangling in her bedroom and sitting on her dresser. She has devoted hours and hours to reading about space and enjoys gazing at the planets through telescopes.

In September, Heidi earned the chance to indulge her interest in the final frontier when donors helped pay for her and a student from the Dixie School District northeast of Walla Walla to attend U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

And, while she was there, no one asked Heidi why she can't see very well.

"I didn't have to worry about people saying, 'What's that?' " Heidi said, referring to the walking cane leaning against the wall in the corner of her home.

While Heidi's parents and older sister, Maggie, 15, don't have vision problems, Heidi and 7-year-old brother Alex suffer from Leber's congenital amaurosis. The disease is rare and caused by her parents carrying the recessive gene.

Heidi has no peripheral vision and struggles with nystagmus -- involuntary eye movement. She's able to read large type, but even with corrective lenses, her vision is 20/80, leaving her extremely farsighted. She has difficulty seeing colors in low contrast and relies on a cane because she can't see below her nose.

It was Jean MacConnachie, a specialist with Educational Service District 123 who works with Heidi on travel skills, who recommended she apply to Space Camp.

The camp is operated by the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission with a goal to inspire children to become scientists. MacConnachie specifically suggested Heidi apply for the portion of their program that caters to visually-impaired youth. It's called Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, or SCIVIS.

The opportunity thrilled Heidi, inspiring her to write a song about space. She first performed it during a talent show when she a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School. She still enjoys singing it.

"Far across the universe, beyond what all our eyes could see, there could be anything," Heidi sang as she played an acoustic guitar Monday at Chief Joseph. "There could be anything."

But there were hurdles to overcome before attending the camp. Tuition for the nearly week-long program runs about $650, which doesn't include travel costs. In total, LeAnne Jackson, Heidi's mother, said the cost approached $1,300.

That's where donors came in. MacConnachie contacted and worked with a number of groups to put together the money for Heidi and Devon Adams -- the Dixie fifth-grader -- to attend Space Camp. The Build A Dream Foundation of ESD 123 and the Red Mountain and Kennewick Lions clubs worked to cover all costs. The Delta Gamma Foundation helped buy flight suits for the students after a member heard about the trip.

"People just blow you away with their generosity sometimes," MacConnachie said.

The camp provided many experiences for Heidi and Devon, who were chaperoned by Jana Leonard from the Dixie School District. The two students built model rockets and climbed a rock wall. They also participated in simulations, including running a model space mission or experiencing what it would be like to walk on the moon in low gravity.

But MacConnachie and Heidi's mother said the girl also talked about the unspoken camaraderie among the other children who struggle to see. The Space Camp also included students from Australia, Ireland and Israel, and a blind chemist was among the speakers.

"It's very reinforcing for kids to be around other visually-impaired kids but not be talking about it," MacConnachie said.

Space Camp has steered Heidi's interest in space in a new direction. She's fascinated by black holes -- "I like to call it a cosmic shredder" -- and the U.S. space program. Her collection now includes models of the space shuttle.

"She's become more focused on the technology of space exploration," her mother said.

And that walking cane isn't the only thing kids ask Heidi about she gave a Space Camp presentation to her science class.

"They thought it was pretty cool," she said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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