2018 SOAR SCHOLARSHIP: Burlington High School Senior Using Visual Impairment to Beat the Odds

At first sight, you would have no idea that Grace Johanns has trouble seeing. However, if you look closely, you'll notice something amazing. Her eyes slightly shake, yet she never misses a beat when she's doing something like playing the flute.

"I think music is a good way to express your feelings and relate to others," the Burlington High School Senior said.

Grace was born with Congenital Nystagmus, as well as a rare condition called Oculocutaneous Albinism. It makes it difficult for her to see detail as well as certain colors. She's also missing pigment in her eyes and skin.

"Kids notice it as a I sit in the front row of the classroom, teachers use different colored markers," she explained. "I never change seats and at a young age I had kids call me mean names like freak, four eyes, loser, you know stuff like that."

Instead of letting it take her down though, Grace stepped up by becoming an advocate for others and for herself.

"I wanted to prove people wrong," she said. "I knew that I wanted to become something and do things that people never thought that I could and I wanted to surprise myself and accomplish things that I didn't even know were possible for me."

She's done just that. After transferring to Burlington High School as a sophomore, Grace joined the Marching Band and made first chair flute. She went on to compete at the state level every year and play in several honor bands around the area.

"Reading music on a lyre during marching band can be difficult as I have to hold it very close to my face, but I listen to the sounds if I can't read something or I sit noticeably closer to my stand," she described.

Grace is also Captain of the Varsity Swim Team - succeeding at that sport despite her lack of depth perception.

"When I dive into the water, I don`t quite know when to throw my hands up because I can`t quite tell when I`m going to hit the surface and when I flip turn I can see the line on the bottom of the pool and I can follow it, but I can`t gauge my distance from the T at the end to the wall so I never know when to flip," she explained. "I do it by feel and I also count my strokes when I swim."

She has broken several of her own personal records, as well as several other ones while swimming for the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind.

"Overall, I think I hold 9 or 10 records in girls swimming for them and this year I was also awarded the Johns Sanko Award for being the Outstanding Female Athlete at the swim meet so that was quite an honor and I was really excited to get that," she said.

We have another award for Grace. We surprised her at a school-wide assembly with our $1,000 S.O.A.R. Scholarship, sponsored by The Sedona Group.

"I'm very appreciative and honored to be one of the five recipients," she said afterwards.

Grace wants to become a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, or TVI. She's had the chance to meet a few of them as a camper - and then a counselor - at the Iowa Braille School's Camp Abilities. She said she knows that's what she's supposed to do for the rest of her life:

"My main goal in life is to motivate, inspire, and empower everyone that I come into contact with and I hope to do that."

Grace plans to attend Saint Ambrose University and major in Biology and Secondary Education, then go to graduate school to became a TVI.

The S.O.A.R. Scholarship is given to five high school seniors around the Quad Cities area every year. S.O.A.R. stands for Strength of Character, Optimism for Future Success, Achievement in Academics and Volunteerism, and Resolve. This is the 7th year WQAD News 8 has partnered with The Sedona Group to grant this scholarship.