Emely Recinos began losing her eyesight at age 7. She was unable to see the board at school, tripped on steps and said she “walked into things” at night.
A year later, she was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition that affects the retina — cone-rod dystrophy — and was told she might one day go blind.
“It was very scary and hard to hear as an 8-year-old,” said Recinos, now 18.
But Recinos, the daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants from New York City, didn’t let her disability get in the way of her dreams.
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This fall, she will attend New York University with a Judy Van Nostrant Art Award for excellence in music. Recinos sings, plays piano by memory, and reads in Braille.
She was also named one of 15 scholars to receive a $10,000 scholarship from Lighthouse Guild NYC, one of the largest vision and healthcare non-profits in the U.S.
“I have always been academically driven,” she told NBC News. “But when I was told I might be blind, I thought I wouldn’t be able to go to school anymore. It was very upsetting and I could not fathom not getting an education. So I made it a point to show that despite my impairment, I could be a success.”
But it wasn’t always easy for Recinos. In school, she was bullied, and her teachers didn’t understand her condition.
“I started to stand out from the rest of my peers,” she said. “And there were misunderstandings. People think you have a mental disability. It was the hardest part to deal with.”
Lighthouse provided Recinos with a therapist to deal with the social challenges.
“She was blind herself and gave me a lot of advice on how to handle the bullying and all the emotions I was feeling,” she said. “She talked to me about real life: going to college, getting married and having kids as a blind person. She was living proof things would be better.”
In Lighthouse’s music program, she learned to play keyboard and even helped organize a rock band and played drums.
Besides high grades and test scores, all of the Lighthouse Scholars have something in common, according to president and CEO, Alan Morse.
“They don’t see themselves as having a horrible condition,” he told NBC News. “They see the world in a very positive light …They expect to do well and to do great things. They think they can change the world for the better.”
As for Recinos, she says she is “excited, but also a bit nervous” to begin college in the fall.
“It’s a big transition and it’s always fun to see how people react to me,” she said. “I hope it’s all positive and people are willing to ask questions if they want to know something or are confused.”
Though her vision has decreased significantly since childhood, she is still not completely blind. She walks with the help of a cane.
Recinos will study international relations and hopes to help children with visual impairments access education, particularly in poorer parts of the world. “I had a lot of people who supported me,” she said.
Her own experience will speak volumes: “I want other kids to know that even though the beginning is awful and you think it’s the end of the world, slowly, it gets better.”
“Don’t give up,” she tells others. “And don’t let anyone tell you your limitations.”