SAUK RAPIDS (AP) -- For 10-year-old Samantha Janson, Christmas came in the middle of July.
That's when an eye-training therapy corrected her lifelong reading problem. For years, Samantha was unable to follow a line of print on a page. Her parents feared academic opportunities and career doors would close because of the problem.
"She was known in school as the smart kid who couldn't read," said her mother, Julie Janson.
About 20 percent of school-aged children struggle to read, according to the Children's Vision Information Network. Some suffer from dyslexia or learning disabilities. However, for a large number, a vision problem interferes with the ability to learn.
Samantha suffered from a tracking difficulty in her eyes. Her vision blurred and she would omit letters or words when trying to read. Squinting helped, but it caused headaches.
In first and second grade, Julie Janson taught Samantha the words in a book before Samantha tried to read them. Samantha would identify the initial letter of the word, memorize it and use it when seeing the same initial letter in a story.
But with the expanded vocabulary of third grade, it soon became obvious that Samantha couldn't keep up. Tutoring at school wasn't helping. "I was upset because I felt that I was the only one who couldn't read," said Samantha, who is now in fourth grade.
In January, her reading still hadn't improved. "She had really hit a wall," her mother said. "I was worried that Samantha would give up forever and that she'd just float through school."
But then, Samantha's aunt suggested that her parents contact a behavioral optometrist. Other eye doctors had already found the girl had 20/20 vision. In April, Samantha went to see Dr. Carie Stotesbery at Lake Region Eye Center in Alexandria.
Stotesbery found that Samantha's eye muscles needed to be strengthened and prescribed a daily, 30-minute workout that amounted to calisthenics for her eyes.
For weeks, Samantha exercised by rotating her eyeballs, reading eye charts in time to a metronome and, to work on her eyes individually, even wore an eye patch. After two months, there were no indications that Samantha's reading was improving.
"It was like lifting weights that were too hard for you to lift and you just had to do it anyway," Julie said. "There were so many mornings I'd get up and wonder if we were wasting our time. Dragging a crying kid downstairs who didn't want to do it. But we kept doing it."
On the morning of July 16, something changed. Julie was reading a phonics book about hawks to Samantha after the eye exercises were done. "It was the same thing we were doing all along," she said. "She'd start a sentence, and I'd help her with the sounds."
Samantha began to sound the opening word when, suddenly, her eyes flowed. She read an entire line from the book out loud. She kept reading for eight sentences. It marked the first time her eyes were strong enough to follow a line of print.
"It was like holding a kid on a bike and all of a sudden they begin cycling by themselves," her mother said. "After she read that, I cried and hugged her for a half-hour."
Samantha progressed quickly and now hopes to reach the fourth-grade reading level before the school year ends.
"I think she learned a lot about perseverance," Julie said of her daughter. "She learned a lot on how to be tough and go through adversity and overcome things. A lot of grownups haven't had to go through things that are as tough as what she has had to go through."
Samantha continues to exercise her eyes and to read. "Reading is the best gift," she said.
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