The Winner’s Circle

March, 2015

A teenage girl in a neon green Blind Children's Center tank top running a marathon

When runner #10706 crossed the finish line at this year’s Asics LA Marathon, a 26.2 mile run brought an entire family’s story full circle. Her name is Emma Leitzinger and her t-shirt read Blind Children’s Center, representing the first school she attended. In many regards, Emma was no different from the other 25,000 runners on the course that day. Watching her race past with a long, natural stride, she seemed like a born runner. But to hear her parents tell it, her road to the finish line wasn’t always so clear.

“It was a year before we learned something was really wrong with Emma’s vision,” her father Jeff remembered. “The ophthalmologist told us, without much empathy, ‘this girl is blind.’ People are good at diagnoses, but not so good at finding you the right help. We just weren’t getting the answers we needed.”

A timely referral from Dr. Mark Borchert at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles led the Leitzingers to the Blind Children’s Center. “I called up,” Emma’s mother Janet said, “and they told us to come over and check it out. Just like that. As soon as we entered the building, we knew we were home. Finally, we had answers.”

After three years in the Center’s inclusive setting Emma moved on to a local private school where she was the only student with a visual impairment. But the skills she acquired at the Center helped her to adapt and thrive. Today, she is a junior at Santa Clara University where she is majoring in psychology. She plans to continue to graduate school and pursue a career in nutrition and fitness, inspired by a growing passion for running.

It started four years ago when Emma began working with personal trainer Yuichi Ohi. “He suggested I try running and I really loved it,” Emma said. “Running gives you time to think, and it’s a great stress reliever.” On the weekend, she typically runs outdoors with Yuichi in Los Angeles; during the week she trains on the treadmill at her university’s gym.

Before long, Emma had run her first half-marathon—13.1 miles. One day Jeff suggested she try a marathon. At first Emma was daunted by the proposition, but she and Yuichi came up with a plan. Slowly building up her mileage, Emma would be ready for the 2015 LA Marathon. An avid skier, as well as distance runner, Emma’s advice to other young people who are visually impaired is, “You can do anything you set your mind to, you just have to do it differently.”

Jeff, who has been a Board member at the Center for nearly ten years, decided to add a fundraising challenge to his daughter’s run. In the weeks leading up to the race, he worked tirelessly, offering to match all contributions up to $30,000. “When I thought about what’s closest to my heart, it’s the Blind Children’s Center,” Jeff said. “It forever changed the course of Emma’s life, and we want to make sure the Center continues to change lives for future generations of children.”