Jalyn Decker uses her Brailler

Thirteen-year-old Jalyn Decker smiles while loading a sheet of paper into her new Perkins Brailler typewriter as her teacher, Jennifer Vortherms, speaks to her. The Sheldon teen was awarded the Brailler after winning the 2019 Marie Hoenig Memorial Perkins Brailler Award.

SHELDON—Being able to read and write is a big deal for 13-year-old Jalyn Decker.

Decker, who is blind and uses Braille to read and write, has been awarded her own Perkins Brailler typewriter after winning the 2019 Marie Hoenig Memorial Perkins Brailler Award.

Marie’s son, Mike Hoenig, presented the Brailler, a Braille typewriter, to Decker at her home east of Sheldon last Wednesday.

Hoenig said he started the annual award with his two sisters after their mother died in 1997.

“We got together and we decided we wanted to do something in memory of Mom,” he said.

Hoenig also is blind due to a retinal condition called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. He said when he attended grade school in Vinton, he used a Brailler for schoolwork but could not bring it home during the summer.

“I think it was into my fourth-grade year, Mom decided that I should have a Braille writer so that when I was at home for the summer, I could write to pen pals and friends and things like that,” he said.

Each year, he awards a Brailler to a K-12 student who he and other members of the selection committee choose as the winner. The winning student must prove they care about academics and will actively use the Brailler. They also must demonstrate compassion toward others, which is a quality Hoenig said his mother practiced.

The Brailler Award originally was only available for students in Iowa; however, Hoenig decided to open up the contest to students in Alabama and Mississippi after attending last summer’s American Council of the Blind National Conference and Convention in St. Louis, where he met teachers of the visually impaired from Alabama and Mississippi who were enthusiastic about the award.

Jalyn Decker and Mike Hoenig

Jalyn Decker poses with Mike Hoenig, who started the annual Brailler Award in honor of his mother, Marie. The Sheldon teen won the honor by writing an essay explaining her love of academics and what she would do with her own Brailler.

Decker’s teacher, Jennifer Vortherms, from the Iowa Braille School, home-schools Decker and nominated her for the award earlier this spring. To apply for the Brailler, Decker wrote a short essay where she explained what she would use her Brailler for. A few of the uses she wrote about included communicating with a pen pal and writing down recipes.

Vortherms said Decker has been using a Brailler issued by the Iowa Braille School but will not be able to keep it after graduating high school.

“That’s kind of why she applied for this,” Vortherms said. “Mike gives them a Brailler that they can keep forever, so she won’t have to worry how she’s going to get one once I take mine back.”

Vortherms said she still will encourage Decker to use the Brailler from the Iowa Braille School for the time being, since the school takes care of any repairs that need to be made to its typewriters.

“I am sure she will use the new one some though just because of the excitement of it being new,” Vortherms said.

Earlier this year, Decker also competed in the 13th annual Iowa Regional Braille Challenge, which is part of a nationwide academic competition where blind or visually impaired students test their Braille literacy skills.

There are five divisions based on age and contestants are tested on reading comprehension, speed and accuracy, spelling, proofreading and charts and graphs. The top 10 finalists from each age level advance to the national finals at the Braille Institute’s Los Angeles Center.

Vortherms administered the preliminary challenge to Decker at her home. She said this was Decker’s first year taking the challenge and, although she performed well, Decker did not qualify for the national finals.

“Next year, though,” Hoenig said to Decker.

Decker types message in Braille

Jalyn Decker tests out her new Perkins Brailler while sitting with her family at their dining room table. Decker uses a Brailler provided by the Iowa Braille School for her school work, but she will be able to keep this Brailler after she graduates.

Among Decker’s favorite subjects to study are history and geography. Vortherms said she also excels in math.

“I love doing mental math in my brain,” Decker said.

Aside from schoolwork, she enjoys swimming, playing with her two dogs and eating Popsicles in the summer.

She and her siblings also are part of a Bible quiz group made up of other home-schoolers and their families in the area. The students will read certain chapters of the Bible, and then during the quiz group meetings, they will be asked questions about the reading and will hit buzzers to answer them. After hitting the buzzers, they have so many seconds to correctly answer the question.

“If you have to quote a verse, it’s 45, if you just have to say an answer, it’s 30 seconds,” Decker said.

She does not have a Braille Bible, so her mother reads passages to her while she types them out. Decker said typing out the text has helped her with memorization.

“Jalyn has a memory that doesn’t forget,” Vortherms said.

While Decker still has more years of schooling ahead of her, Hoenig mentioned the possibility of her joining his committee that selects winners of the Brailler Award. He said one of the first recipients of the award, who is now 22, joined the committee two years ago.