With the sound of a whistle Friday afternoon, Heaven Vallejos bolted from the start line and sprinted around a field in northeast Fresno, racing toward a finish line she couldn't see.
Heaven, a fourth-grader who is completely blind, has only been running with Mountain View Elementary's team for a few weeks -- she told her family on the first day of school that she wanted to join the team.
Up to now, Heaven's running has mostly been confined to public parks. Her father, Frank Vallejos, encouraged her to run, determined that she not be fearful or limited by her blindness.
But even Vallejos was surprised to hear his 9-year-old daughter's plans.
"My first thought was: how was she going to run, but I knew somehow she was going to make it happen," he said.
Ever since then, Heaven was determined to run despite the obstacles. Being the only girl in her family -- she has a twin brother who is blind and two older brothers -- Heaven wasn't afraid to challenge herself.
"One of my brothers said I couldn't do it, and later I told some of the coaches, 'Hey, look at me now,' " Heaven said.
For nearly two months Heaven has trained with Clovis Unified School District's special education instructor, Norman Alston. Heaven calls him her inspiration.
"He's a good person," she said. "At the end of the race he's like go-go-go, and it makes me run faster."
During Friday's meet between Mountain View and Copper Hills elementary schools, Heaven -- sporting a yellow and blue cross-country outfit -- was accompanied by Alston, who ran next to her to guide her along the way.
"I've become more protective than a coach would be," Alston said. "It's almost like she's my daughter, I want to take care of her but also help her achieve what she wants in running."
Even though Alston has only worked with Heaven for about two months, he said they have formed a special bond.
"It's a beautiful challenge because it helps me understand exactly what her needs are," Alston said. "I tell her, 'Heaven, we're running over roots, we're running under a tree.' I'm describing so much more and my eyes are open more to what her world is."
Classmate Alyah Hernandez, 10, who also runs on the cross-country team, said Heaven is an amazing friend.
"She inspires me and is so much fun to hang out with," Alyah said. "We decided that we want to go to middle and high school together, never separate."
Mountain View Elementary has worked closely with CUSD's Special Education Department to help Heaven achieve her goals, not only on the field but also in the classroom.
Lisa Florentino, teacher of the visually impaired, started working with Heaven when she was 2. She said Heaven's blindness developed because she was a premature infant.
"She's just full of light and a joy to be with," Florentino said.
Heaven said she wants to join the track team and dreams about completing a triathlon in her near future.
"I know I will do it," she said.
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