- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

Katie Harman took off her tiara and laid down her scepter yesterday to take time to read a book to a group of children whose eyesight is far from 20/20.
Sure, the reigning Miss America may be the most beautiful girl in the nation, but here she was just Katie, dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, reading one of her favorite childhood books, "Stand Back, Said the Elephant, I'm Going to Sneeze!" to 12 youngsters who live in the metropolitan area.
Miss Harman, 21, wasn't the only one with a childhood tale to tell. Volunteers from Executive Women International which co-hosted the Third Annual Reading Rally with the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Northwest read their own favorite stories to bright-eyed youngsters.
After the adults were through, the children took over and read books of their own, some with oversized letters for those who were farsighted. Kim Zimmer, vice president of Columbia Lighthouse, says the rally serves two purposes the children get to practice their reading, and they also get an opportunity to be with one another and just play.
The children had fun with the special computers that are part of the organization's Assistive Technology Lab. These are computers that can talk to you.
Powered by a software called Zoom Text, the blind, the near-blind, the near or farsighted could fire a torpedo, blow up a battleship and hear a gratifying explosion.
"Paakooosh!" said Michael Foster, 12, of Southeast. "I torpedoed 10 ships."
If the young warriors missed the target, the computer told them about it in no uncertain terms.
Miss America, sporting sneakers on her feet and wearing her hair pulled back in a pony tail, was on hand when the children made some creepy Halloween spiders using paint, pipe cleaners and egg crates.
She was in town yesterday for "Make a Difference Day," the nation's biggest day of volunteering.
She had just finished helping clean up the grounds along the Anacostia River with the Duke Ellington School Choir volunteers before settling in to read to the rambunctious group of children, ages 1 to 13, who had gathered in a circle on the floor to hear all about the sneezing elephant. But before Miss Harman could begin her tale, the children found her crown and started trying it on. One little boy even got to be king for a few moments.
Asa DeShields, 5, befriended Miss Harman right from the start. The pint-sized first-grader, who attends Lyndon Hill Elementary School in Capitol Heights, was the first to be crowned by Miss America, although her braids presented a problem when it came to balancing the diamond-encrusted crown atop her head. Asa took it in her stride, in a manner befitting a future Miss America, though it will be a few years before she can enter the pageant.
When asked what kind of books she likes to read, the bespectacled youngster replied, "fun and happy books."
"I read a lot of books because we've got lots of books at home," she said.
Her mother, Paulette Cartledge, 32, said this was the first activity at Columbia Lighthouse that she and Asa had attended.
It won't be the last.
"This is great because it exposes her to other children with the same issues as she has. This event helps to reinforce what I'm teaching her at home, which makes it so much easier for me to work with her on her reading and on the computer," she said.
Asa has difficulty seeing objects at a distance, but her mom was happy to report that her only daughter's vision has improved since her eye surgery.
Antoine Johnson, 28, the children's program coordinator at Columbia Lighthouse, plans the fun and educational programs for the children. Two weeks ago, the children had a Touch Tour at Disney on Ice at the MCI Center. There, blind and visually impaired children had the opportunity to meet the characters, touch the props and characters themselves, and ice skate. There are lots of benefits to the Reading Rally, he said.
"I think it's a great opportunity for the children to [meet each other and] sighted children as well. They get the chance to experiment with the new computer technology, and it's good for them to meet the celebrities they see on television," Mr. Johnson said.
Right now, he's busy planning the upcoming Halloween Party for the little ones and their family members. It will include a costume contest, mummy-wrap race and trick-or-treating in an office building.
"Our goal is to get parents more involved with the children's programs. The children learn while they're having fun," he said.

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