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Illinois entrepreneur wins award from Microsoft



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Nov. 11--Michelle Tjelmeland was 20 before she realized she had a hearing loss. Two years later, she was deaf.

Tjelmeland had been a reading teacher before the hearing loss forced her to quit. Then she had a child who showed signs of deafness, although many doctors dismissed her concerns.

"We went to nine different doctors, and they all told us pretty much I was nuts," she said. Finally, a doctor in New Orleans confirmed the baby's lack of hearing.

Her daughter's deafness spurred Tjelmeland to seek cochlear implants for both of them as well as training for a new career.

Tjelmeland, who lives in Springfield, Ill., is one of five winners of Microsoft Corp.'s Start Something Amazing awards, recognizing people who use the company's technology to pursue everyday passions. She received the award Thursday from Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Tjelmeland, 32, has embraced technology, earning an online master's degree from the University of Illinois, starting a home-based Web site business with other stay-at-home mothers and launching a nonprofit foundation for families seeking cochlear implants, including a grant program for expenses that aren't covered by insurance.

Her business, e-Websmart, has clients in St. Louis and throughout Illinois. She and her team design the Web sites so clients can update them with little or no assistance. The service includes training and technical support.

"I am the owner and founder, but I have a team of people working with me," she said. Two graphic artists, a copy writer and an information-technology expert -- the only man -- work with e-Websmart on contracts.

Charlie Houska, an artist based in the Central West End, said a friend of a friend referred him to Tjelmeland.

"She has taught me how to update (my site) and keep track of visitors and all that stuff," said Houska. "I love it. It's amazing and different."

Glenn Hodas, a Springfield-based political consultant, is another satisfied client. He said Tjelmeland first helped him with MapTheVotes.com, a site that contains dozens of maps showing how people voted in Illinois elections.

"I needed to get it going in about a week and a half," Hodas said. Tjelmeland jumped on his idea and met the deadline. She also designed two other sites for him. "She's really hands-on," he said. "She's got a super amount of energy."

Tjelmeland channels some of her energy into two other sites related to her pursuit of a cochlear implant for her daughter (www.iloveellie.com) as well as the nonprofit Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (www.ciafonline.org).

Tjelmeland began researching the possibility of an implant for her daughter as soon as the child was diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

Although the implants are controversial, Tjelmeland was raised in a family with normal speech and hearing, and she wanted her daughter to be able to speak and hear as well. The operation occurred when the child, named Ellie, was a toddler.

Ellie, who didn't hear until she got the implant, began speaking at age 4. She's 7 now and in second grade, performing at grade level.

"She still struggles because she is hearing-impaired," said Tjelmeland, whose other daughter, Lucy, 5, has normal hearing.

"I know what my life has been like being hearing-impaired," Tjelmeland said. "It was a very lonely, devastating world.

"If I only had one day to live my life and I could get the implant, I would hands-down do it," she said. "It has given me my life back."

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Copyright (c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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