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Naoko Zoerlein Receives Hadley's 2018 'Family Education Award'

Naoko Zoerlein

An Alexandria, Virginia mother who has been learning braille in order to assist her 11-year-old daughter, who became legally blind while battling a brain tumor, has earned the 'Winn Family Education Award' given by Hadley.

Naoko Zoerlein was first introduced to Hadley shortly after her daughter, Maria, underwent her third surgery to treat a brain tumor at the age of 5 in 2012. Maria lost complete vision in both of eyes shortly thereafter.

On a suggestion from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Naoko contacted Hadley and has been taking the free courses it offers in not only braille, but several other life learning programs accessible to persons with low vision.

"We were forced to jump in to the world of blindness rather unexpectedly, but Hadley has been a wonderful source of support," said Naoko. "Its programs have helped us as we attempt to help Maria keep up with her studies at the regular school she attends."

Maria was entering kindergarten when she lost her vision, which forced her parents to begin searching for the proper tools and educators to assist their daughter's transition into a world of darkness. And Hadley has been by their side ever since.

"We knew we had to learn braille in order to help Maria," explained Naoko, who noted how busy her daughter is due to it taking her longer to learn virtually everything than it does for sighted kids."

And that includes both English and Japanese versions of braille. Naoko (a native of Japan) and her husband both speak Japanese and have Maria enrolled in both a public school in Fairfax County, Virginia as well as a Saturday-only Japanese school nearby.

Equally rewarding as helping her daughter with her general studies has been Hadley's braille music courses that Naoko takes. She says it's greatly assisted her daughter in learning how to play the violin, which the 6th grader started three years ago.

"Naoko has consistently demonstrated not only a dedication to her courses, but to her daughter," said Linn Sorge, who served as one of Naoko's Hadley instructors. "It is clear through the courses she has chosen to take that she is not afraid of a challenge if it means it will enhance her ability to support a high-quality education for her daughter, Maria."

As a parent, Naoko didn't want her daughter's disability to prohibit her from doing all of the things she loved to do before she lost her sight. That includes singing, ziplining and even riding a bike. The family has even started volunteering to raise puppies that then go on to train to become guide dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

"We wanted to teach Maria about public service. Because she has been on the receiving end of so much support from the community, we feel it's important that, in return, she learns how to help others," explained Naoko.

"I was surprised and flattered to win the award from Hadley because if it weren't for them we wouldn't be able to keep up with our daughter's studies," said Naoko, who laughed: "I may be the ideal student for Hadley, but this has definitely been a mutually beneficial relationship."

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