Kristy Hooper and her daughter Lily-Grace attended a Frock Swap fashion show, which Hooper organized to raise money to buy Perkins SMART Braillers for children in Great Britain who are blind. Photo © Paul Poynter, White Dove Photography.
By BILL WINTER
The little girl in the Facebook video is adorable. She has brown eyes and a bashful smile that reveals several missing baby teeth. She’s clutching a doll dressed in a turquoise-blue dress.
She suddenly bursts into song. To the tune of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,” she sings, with a lilting English accent, “She was a brailler girl, I said see ya later, girl – it wasn’t big enough for her.”
She pauses and you hear her mother’s voice off-camera, encouraging her, “She had a…”
The girl picks up the song: “She had a pretty face, her name was Lily-Grace, she had a different way to le-e-e-earn!” She stretches out that last syllable and grins.
Meet Lily-Grace, brailler girl.
She’s the angel-faced inspiration behind Project Brailler – a campaign by her mother, Kristy Hooper, to put a Perkins SMART Brailler® in the hands of 25,000 children in Great Britain who are blind or partially sighted.
But even a brailler girl can make a mistake, and Lily-Grace slightly mixed up the lyrics in her video. The second line was supposed to be “I said see ya later text” – a reference to her embrace of braille over traditional print.
No matter. The message of braille empowerment and the spunky attitude come through loud and clear. Those same themes define Hooper’s strategy with Project Brailler.
“My husband often cries, ‘Why do you think you can take on the world on your own?’” said Hooper. “I don’t. But I can raise a profile. I can rally people.”
In a way, Project Brailler really began when Lily-Grace was born. A medical episode when she was four days old left her visually impaired and with nystagmus, involuntary eye movements. But it didn’t dim her vibrant personality.
“Lily-Grace is always happy!” said Hooper. “She is a bright light; articulate and confident.”
Lily-Grace attends school near her hometown of Winterbourne, a rural village about 100 miles west of London. She started learning braille last year, so her mother was delighted to discover a contest to give away a SMART Brailler, a high-tech braille “typewriter” produced by Perkins Solutions. It can speak aloud what’s being typed, which makes learning braille easier.
Starting in September 2014, six British families got a SMART Brailler, nicknamed “Marty,” for two weeks and wrote about their experiences on Facebook or their blogs. Afterward, the public voted online for the winning family.
The contest was sponsored by WonderBaby.org, a Perkins-affiliated website that offers information and support to parents of children who are blind, Perkins Solutions, and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), which distributes SMART Braillers in the U.K.
When the box containing “Marty” arrived, Lily-Grace responded immediately to the SMART Brailler.
“She wouldn’t leave it alone,” said Hooper. “It is her favorite thing to do. All the time, she wants to braille. She loves that machine. It’s a wonderful piece of equipment for learning braille.”
When the contest ended, Hooper launched an around-the-clock social media campaign to gain support. Lily-Grace eked out a narrow victory, winning by 20 votes. But rather than celebrating, Hooper felt badly for the five other children who didn’t win a SMART Brailler.
“The thing about Kristy is that she’s passionate but she’s also altruistic,” said Amber Bobnar, who runs Wonderbaby.org. “Her first goal is, everybody in this contest needs to win.”
So Hooper announced a plan to raise money to buy braillers for the other children. Two families independently raised funds, which left three children who needed help.
Hooper created a fundraising page, and donors contributed £7,000 ($11,000) in the first month. Soon afterward, photos of three beaming youngsters posing with new SMART Braillers were posted on Facebook.
Mission accomplished? Not yet. If the SMART Brailler helped these children so much, Hooper asked, why shouldn’t every child in the U.K. who is blind get one?
“I thought she’d be done,” said Bobnar. “But she said, no. Why stop here? She just kept rolling with it.”
Project Brailler went national. Hooper is now in the process of setting up a registered nonprofit charity, which she hopes to officially launch in early 2016.
In the meantime, she’s finding creative new ways to raise money. On ProjectBrailler.co.uk, supporters can purchase Project Brailler T-shirts, hoodies and wrist bracelets. Hooper organized a “Frock Swap” where girls could swap clothes and make donations, and she’s working on a 2016 calendar that showcases 12 children with visual impairments, each engaged in their favorite activity.
Hooper knows her daughter is an irresistible ambassador for the project, so videos of Lily-Grace singing “Brailler Girl” and using the SMART Brailler are all over social media – Facebook, Vimeo and Twitter (#ProjectBrailler).
Hooper is also trying to get the British government involved. She started a petition on Change.org, asking education officials to “ensure that every British library or school has access to a SMART Brailler by 2020.” As of August, the petition had garnered 1,600 signatures.
Looking back at the last year, Hooper is amazed at how far her project has expanded.
“It just evolved,” she said. “None of this was expected or anticipated. It’s all kind of leading me, in a sense.”
Bobnar, for one, doesn’t doubt that Hooper will accomplish her ambitious goals.
“When she said she was going to step this up to the next level, I wasn’t at all surprised,” she said. “I’m telling you, she’s going to get a SMART Brailler in the hands of every kid in the U.K., and then she’s going to do the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, Lily-Grace keeps finding new ways to sing braille’s praises.
The brailler girl celebrated her seventh birthday in August by serving friends – what else? – a cake that spelled out “Happy Birthday” in braille.