EAST SPRINGFIELD - Olivia Ault got an early Christmas present Monday.
The visually impaired 6-year-old was the highest vote-getter in an online competition among six families across the country hoping to win Lily LightAide, described as a "fun and bright learning tool for children who are blind or visually impaired."
The Backpacking LightAide Program welcomed daily votes from Dec. 9 through Sunday at wonderbaby.org after each family had a chance to experience for a two-week period the portable assistive device that displays 224 bright and multi-colored LED lights to visually stimulate and encourage learning.
WonderBaby.org is a project funded by Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. It was founded in 1829 as the first school for the blind in the United States and is where Helen Keller was educated, according to its website. Wonderbaby.org. "is dedicated to helping parents of young children with visual impairments as well as children with multiple disabilities," according to its website.
It features a database of articles written by parents "who want to share with others what they've learned about playing with and teaching a blind child, as well as links to meaningful resources and ways to connect with other families."
Olivia, the daughter of Tom and Anna Ault, is an Edison Local pupil who attends Hills Elementary in Mingo Junction, where the visually impaired unit is located. She has cortical visual impairment due to a stroke that she suffered before birth. She had severe brain damage from the stroke which caused developmental and cognitive delays along with visual impairment.
"We are thrilled that Olivia has won the Backpacking LightAide contest, but it's more than just winning the assistive technology - it's about a community that has come together for a child, a child who needs extra help and adaptive tools to better learn numbers, shapes, letters, colors and much more," Anna said. "Having the opportunity to trial a new product designed specifically for children with cortical visual impairment in mind, has been an adventure," she said.
"We were all amazed how word of this contest spread like wildfire," Anna said. "With more than 14,400 votes for Olivia, I can't even begin to thank all of the people involved with sharing our story, posting the links on Facebook, tweeting and praying for our sweet little girl. It was an awesome experience to watch as this contest spread across the world."
Anna said 46 countries participated in the voting, including the United States, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Nigeria.
"We have always felt that the grace of God and prayer have brought Olivia to where she is today, so I never underestimate the power of prayer, and now I will never underestimate the power of people and the good inside of them. We are truly blessed," Anna said.
Local support for Olivia came from her own school district, which is launching an effort beginning today to help the other families who were in contention for the device.
"We have invited Olivia to Edison High School (today) so she can meet some of the students who pulled so hard for her, and we are also kicking off 'Help Everyone SEE Our Spirit Week,'" explained Jamie Evans, an Edison teacher and coach who runs Edison's Facebook page and is coordinator of this effort.
"Edison students will be raising money in hopes of securing a LightAide for every family in the contest. The Perkins school and the manufacturer have cut the cost ($999 each) in half, so if we raise $2,800, we could give a LightAide to all of the kids," Evans said, noting one family's community already has purchased one.
Evans said as Edison students became more aware of Olivia's condition and the conditions of the other competitors, "they questioned that all of these families needed this technology. I agreed, and the idea was born."
"We hope to raise enough money to get LightAides for all the families in the contest, and if we raise extra, we are going to donate to Abigail's Angels, a program which benefits another girl in the district with visual impairments," Evans said.
The week will include students at Edison High School raising money through today's Santa Hat Day, Wednesday's Bad Christmas Sweater Day and Throwback Thursday. "On Thursday, students will dress from a different decade. ... Pictures of all the activities will be on Edison Local Schools' Facebook page," Evans said.
At John Gregg and Stanton, today is PJ Day, Wednesday is Crazy Socks Days and on Thursday it's Santa Hat Day.
"This fundraising drive doesn't just encompass our whole school here at Edison High School but the whole Edison Local School District," Evans said. "Not only will the students be involved, but the staffs will be donating, and even the PTOs are getting into the act. To be honest, it's somewhat of a Christmas miracle the way that the compassion for these kids has infected the district."
Evans said the community is welcome to participate, too, as collection envelopes have been placed in each office.
"I just feel very blessed to have been a part of this whole experience," Evans said. "You spend your whole life living in the same area, and the people never cease to amaze you. The way that our communities came together to support this family was awe inspiring, and it wasn't just Edison. It was Trinity Health System, students from neighboring school districts and people from literally around the world," Evans said. "Social media is so powerful in today's society, and so often you hear about the negative, but here is an example of using social media to do good, to accomplish something great and to bring people together."
"I am excited that Olivia won. The coach and competitor in me came out, and I know Anna felt the same way, but I am even more excited about raising the money for the rest of the kids," he continued. "What a powerful statement to make, that you care about more than just yourself and your own people. More people need to feel that way, especially at Christmas. For the motivation for the whole thing to come from my students makes it even more gratifying to me," Evans said.
Anna said she learned about the Backpacking LightAide Program through her participation in a weekly conference call for parents of children with CVI across the country.
"This conference call is a type of support group as well as an informative group to discuss various topics and ideas on how to best meet the challenges of CVI in relation to our children," she said. "This group is organized by the Jewish Guild for the Blind. The group shares any new technology, conferences and webinars offered relating to CVI. The moderator informed our group of the program that Wonder baby, Philips and Perkins was offering. I then checked out the wonderbaby.org website for further information and instructions on how to apply to be chosen as one of the families," she said.
"Before being chosen, we needed to be willing to have a blog and post an update at least twice, upload at least one video to You Tube and submit a family bio and picture," Anna explained. "Before I applied, I started a blog about our adventure with cortical visual impairment. After six years of living with a child with CVI, I had never thought to start a blog. I am so grateful that I did, because I don't know how many times I have been asked by other parents of children who have suffered stokes to discuss our experience. I start by telling them that this is an adventure that we have been on, including many ups and downs. Even if we were not chosen as one of the six families, I was glad I started a blog," she said.
Word that Olivia was chosen as the fifth child to trial the LightAide delighted the Aults.
"We couldn't have been happier," Anna said. "Just the chance to test the product to see if it would be beneficial to her was enough, let alone the chance to win the product."
There were some people, however, who saw the contest as turning the situation into too much of a reality TV-like experience in that one family would be rewarded and the rest left wanting. Philips is making the devices available to the other participating families at half price, or about $499 per family.
Marilyn Rea Beyer, public relations director for the Perkins School for the Blind, said, "We wanted as many people as possible to know about the LightAide. To be able to put this into a child's hands, we see as a big positive."
She said holding the vote meant the school wasn't put into the difficult position of picking the family to receive the device for free.
"There have been fundraising efforts in the other cities to help the families get the LightAide, and that's very good. We wanted to go low key, and this makes other people aware. We see it as another way for people to talk about it."
Anna said in regards to any negative comments about the contest, "I think that they don't understand what the Backpacking Program was about. We all knew going into it that we would have it to test for two weeks and then send it on. We all knew that we would have a one-in-six chance to get it for free," she said.
"This is a product by a company, just like anything else. If anyone knows about the cost of assistive technology for special needs children, they know that any equipment is very costly. In fact, the LightAide is actually one of the more reasonable ones on this spectrum. The contest was an ingenious marketing tool used to spread the word about this new product. I am proud that we were able to be a part of it. I am proud to say that we have raised awareness about CVI, possibly networked to a family that was unaware of this new technology and made this company proud that they took the time to invest in developing a device for children with cortical visual impairment," Anna said.
The Ault family is grateful for all the support.
"Although this was initially about trialing a product to see if my daughter would benefit from it, then having the opportunity to win the device, this contest ended up being much more than that," Anna said.
"Through this program and Olivia's story, we were able to bring awareness to children like Olivia who have visual impairments that devices like the LightAide might help.
"And because of all of the support, the word has spread, and we are not only able to help Olivia, but also help bring assistance to all of the families that were chosen," she said.
(Staff writer Paul Giannamore contributed to this story.)