HOLLY HILL -- Howie and Julie Sohm of Holly Hill did not sink into despair when their daughter was diagnosed with optic nerve atrophy as a toddler. Even at that age, they recognized her true potential.
Jacey Sohm was 18 months old when her parents and other family members began to notice that she was sitting a little too close to the television and, later on, reading with books almost pressed to her face. Her mom would sneak into her room without Jacey realizing she was even there.
"She was about 3 years old when she was diagnosed. The doctors said that she was legally blind but as she was growing up, we told her that she could do anything that she put her mind to," Julie said.
Howie said it was the best approach to raising a successful child. The couple also have a 22-year-old-son, Will.
They said they didn't treat Jacey any differently.
"She's so special and sweet and has always done things on her own terms," Howie said. "We have never had to help her hardly on anything, especially school work."
The 18-year-old is a testament of the impact her parents' nurturing lessons had on her. The 18-year-old will attend Wofford College in Spartanburg with the help of numerous academic scholarships.
'They told me to do my best'
A $10,000 scholarship from the New York City-based nonprofit Lighthouse Guild will help her continue her studies, Jacey said.
Lighthouse Guild is a leading nonprofit vision and health care organization that awards more than $200,000 in scholarships to outstanding students who have vision loss. Following a rigorous application process that included academic excellence and community involvement considerations, Jacey was one of only 20 high school seniors from across the nation chosen to receive a $10,000 merit scholarship.
"My parents just kind of told me to do my best like any other person. It didn't really matter that I was blind. I had to work just as hard," said Jacey, who graduated at the top of her class from Holly Hill Academy.
"It's very important to have people who believe in you and give you that boost that you need sometimes," she said.
Jacey said she was extremely excited about receiving the Lighthouse Guild scholarship.
"I was like, 'Woo-hoo!' My mom had to call me about it because I was at camp at the time. I had applied for it a while back and then I got the call. I thought, 'Oh man, this is going to help so much,'" she said.
Jacey is considering physics as a possible major and recently attended a week-long engineering camp for blind and low-vision high school students. The camp was held Aug. 2-8 at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
Jacey said she was part of a group of students who had to build a boat and a water filtration system as part of a simulated activity to provide water to a poor agricultural community in India.
"I was the water specialist so I had to build that water filtration system. I did that with toilet paper, bandannas and soda bottles, and it worked!" she said.
The teen is also the recipient of a Palmetto Fellows Scholarship and a Benjamin Wofford Scholarship, along with scholarships from the South Carolina State Fair and the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce.
In addition, she earned more than 20 hours of college credit hours by participating in Middle College at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.
Along with a supportive family, Jacey credits the invaluable support of teachers to her academic success.
At the top of her list are Blake Whitney, her physics and calculus teacher at Holly Hill Academy, and Dr. Mary Jane Davis, Ed.D, NBCT, who teaches students with visual impairments. Davis has worked with Jacey since she was 3 years old.
"My physics teacher really inspired a love of science and problem solving. We had to do all kinds of projects in physics. We built potato guns out of PVC pipe and bridges out of Popsicle sticks just to see how strong or well we could make them," Jacey said.
Davis said she enjoyed working with Jacey.
"As technology changes, it's fun to learn new technology so that the students can access curriculum to help them be as successful as their sighted peers. Jacey ... has really excelled," Davis said.
She added, "I really do love this job and think Jacey is going to do great things. She had a great support system at home and in school, too. I just feel like she's going to do really good things. We want them all to be successful and gainfully employed and give back to the community."
Julie said Davis was crying along with the rest of the family at Jacey's high school graduation ceremonies, but takes comfort in knowing her daughter will be placed with an adult counselor who will help her transition to college through the S.C. Commission for the Blind.
Julie said the Lighthouse Guild scholarship will open up many other opportunities for Jacey.
"My husband and I are very excited for her and the opportunities it provides for her. I think she wants to use it towards a travel-abroad program. Wofford's very big in that. I just want her to do whatever makes her happy," she said.
Jacey said while there were challenges she had to overcome during her journey through school, she never doubted she could overcome them.
"There's been a lot of challenges in trying to learn and do just like everybody else but in an environment that's not designed for me. It's designed for everybody else, and I have to learn different ways to make it," she said.
Large print textbooks and hand-held magnifiers are among the tools that have helped make her studies easier, Jacey said. She said she does not give up because "if I have to do something, I'm going to do it."
"With notes on a board that I can't see, I've had to have assistive technology to help me get that information. With books that I can't read, I have to get digital copies of them so I can read them on some of the devices with enlarged print," Jacey said.
Howie noted, "The South Carolina Commission for the Blind has been wonderful in providing her with some really neat technology," including a laptop that Jacey will be taking to college.
As far as technology, Jacey said she has used everything from low-tech, hand-held magnifiers and monoculars to more high-tech devices such as an iPad and a portable electronic magnifier that helps her read, write and view magnified images at any distance.
She offers some sage advice for other blind or visually impaired students who may believe they cannot achieve personally or academically.
"It doesn't really matter that you're blind. It really matters what attitude you have in conquering those obstacles," Jacey said. "You really have to be have faith in yourself that you can do it."
She is active in community service and has participated in several mission projects, including those provided through PASSPORT, a Christian summer camp at Corinth Baptist Church in Holly Hill. The teen has also participated in the Salkehatchie Summer Service Program Mission, a short-term mission for youth in which they make repairs on low- to moderate-income housing during the summer. It is a Methodist Summer Service program.
"I don't see any limitations for Jacey," mom Julie said.
"We're very blessed to have a self-motivated and extremely intelligent daughter," Howie added, noting that Jacey is also adept at karate and will likely take advantage of tae kwon do classes at Wofford.
"Her mother and I have no worries. I've watched her. She's tough," he said, smiling.