A spunky, visually-impaired 10-year-old has turned her sights on her state lawmakers to help win funding for children with vision loss – and so far, has secured $1.25 million and counting.
Paloma Rambana of Tallahassee, Florida, was born with a rare cornea-clouding condition that left her legally blind. Florida’s Division of Blind Services provided her with equipment and training at first, but because Florida cuts off non-school support to visually impaired children aged 6-13, Paloma lost access to state services.
Although she simply could have forgotten the issue and relied on her family for help – Paloma’s parents are lawyers – the young dynamo felt compassion and took up lobbying on behalf of other children instead.
“There are nearly 1,000 kids like me in Florida, in the gap,” Paloma tells PEOPLE. “I’ve been lobbying the legislature to help these children. This is important to me.”
The young girl became aware of the funding gap the day she started school, because she stopped having vision classes, says Paloma’s mother, Elizabeth Ricci.
“When she was in third grade it really hit home when her $3,000.00 CCTV (Closed Circuit Television System) magnifier broke and [Paloma’s father] Neil and I had to scramble to get a new one,” Elizabeth tells PEOPLE.
Last year, local organization, Lighthouse for the Blind, asked Paloma to accompany its lobbyist to the statehouse in an effort to get money for a children’s program.
“She was a big hit and was asked to spend additional days at the Capitol,” Ricci says.
Paloma visited lawmakers in their offices, telling each one her story and explaining “the gap.”
The gap years are crucial to a child who has trouble seeing, Paloma says.
“If you are in that age group, that is the majority of your learning,” she adds. Without special magnifiers and training, “you are missing out. So when you get picked back up, you’re super confused. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
No one seems to know precisely why the gap exists in Florida.
. “My understanding is, the theory was, the kids in this age group are being funded by the school system,” says Kim Galban, executive director of Lighthouse of the Big Bend in Tallahassee, “so the state stopped funding them until they needed transition services.
“The problem is, this gap group is only getting services at school, which pulls them out of class and focuses only on the academics,” Galban says. “They need more.”
Visually-impaired kids also need specialized reading equipment, to learn to type in braille, and how to navigate the grocery store and other social settings, Galban says. “Without funding, they miss out.”
“It’s just sad,” Paloma says.
When visiting the lawmakers, Paloma managed to explain both the sadness of the situation and the sense of urgency.
“She brought the funding gap to my attention,” says Senator Alan Hays, chairman of the Appropriations Committee for the Florida State Senate. “This was a very cool, calm, collected young lady who said, ‘Senator Hays, are you aware of this situation?’ I said no, and she educated me.”
Senator Hays took Paloma’s information to his Senate colleagues, who also had not been aware of the funding gap.
“We were able to get money in the budget that year for that group of youngsters,” Sen. Hays says.
Adults give Paloma credit for raising the money.
“Paloma’s been very instrumental in helping us secure ad hoc funding for children who are visually impaired,” Galban says.
The pint-sized lobbyist has reaped much recognition for her efforts. Among other laurels, she received a congratulatory letter from President Obama; and in April, she was given a Yes I Can Award by the Council for Exceptional Children.
“Paloma’s efforts prove that the quiet voice of a young girl can sometimes have more immediate impact than an army of professional lobbyists,” says James Hickey, the former president of the Association of Government Professionals. “Through her personal story of being legally blind she made us all see.”
Paloma is far from done, though.
“We have a ways to go,” Paloma says. “I plan to keep lobbying.”
The work wasn’t always easy for Paloma.
“I thought it was difficult at first,” she says. But she pressed on. “After a while, you get confident and think, ‘I’m a pro at this.’ You get more confident.”
The poised Paloma makes an impact on the people she meets.
“She is the kind of kid where, when she is done talking, you just want to pick her up and give her a hug,” Sen. Hays says. “She is an inspiration. She refuses to let impairment drive her into a cave somewhere.”
Nor does Paloma remain for long in her room. The young go-getter emerges daily from slumber at 5:25 a.m.
“I get up with the sun,” Paloma says. “I do it for fun. I like to get up early. I make sure I’m on top of things. I want to be on top of things.”
While doing her advocacy work, Paloma has developed tips and advice for people who want to achieve a challenging goal.
“Just get out there and try at first,” she says.
Speaking to others can be daunting, Paloma acknowledges. When dealing one on one with people, “Just talk to them normally.”
Paloma told this reporter: “I’m not leaping or doing confetti canons talking to you. I’m just having a normal conversation.” When addressing a large audience, she says, “Just look at the back of the room. They will think you are looking at them.”
Overall, Paloma advises: “Just be brave.”
She adds: “The result is worth it.”