I have just unpacked upteen boxes and suitcases from a week of running a summer camp for children who are blind. Lest you think this past week was a chore, it was not. It was a week of pure joy. A week of watching months of work come to fruition. A week of watching young souls meet new friends, try new things, and, in some cases, mature beyond belief. Children whose parents thought they would be homesick and crying to come home at night, instead spent the night playing games with other children. Sure, the children are blind and severely visually impaired, but they are still children. The lure of learning how to play blackjack on Braille cards, or chess on an adapted chessboard, or Connect Four, Braille Uno, or Monopoly in large print and Braille, won out over going home to their lonesome bedrooms at home. Who can argue with fun?
This was my 23rd year doing the camp. I started it when my son, Francis, was five years old. In our state, as in most others, children who are blind or visually impaired go to their neighborhood public schools with accommodations made so they can be educated with their fully sighted peers. It is a wonderful concept, except for the fact that the child may often feel alone. I started this camp so the children who are blind can get together with other children with the same disability and learn that they are not alone. There are many other children just like them!
We have been fortunate to rent a wheelchair accessible retreat center. (Some children who are blind are also mobility impaired.) Although I call it “camp”, it has bedrooms with 4 beds, (linens and all,) each with its own bathroom (with hot water!) There is air conditioning, carpeted floors, and a great room where all meals are cooked by a full kitchen staff. There is also plenty of room for camp activities. I know it does not sound like your typical “camp”, but it is as close to nature as this little old social worker cares to get.
The children range in age from six to eighteen, although theoretically the campers top age is 13. Any camper who has shown active participation in the camp, we hire as a junior counselor when they reach the age of 14. I learned this “technique” to deal with the teenagers years ago when we found ourselves with a large group of teen campers who rebelled against the camp activities and wanted to just hang out. They would sit back and not want to participate in the dance, the games, the swimming and so forth, effectively using the time just to socialize. I am not saying that socializing is a bad thing; in fact it is a much needed activity for these teens, but just not the purpose of our camp. So, we hire them to work with the younger children. Our state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation actually pays us to use this experience as a job training opportunity. For those counselors who are totally blind, we provide a sighted guide for them, but they are expected to do the actual work. Is there anything more valuable than seeing a fifteen year old girl, totally blind from birth, working with a six year old girl who is also totally blind? The campers learn that despite their disability, they have valuable skills, and they learn these skills from the junior counselors. We have had many junior counselors go on to be head counselors, and also onto college into teaching and human service positions based on their initial experience at camp. (We also have one young man who has become a certified EMT after working at our camp as our Medic for 8 years.) Because these young people are working at camp, they are learning valuable work skills and building a resume, and I have been asked to write many recommendations for these hard working, eager to learn, teenagers.
The activities at the camp itself are modified for children with vision impairments. Besides the games mentioned previously, we have many group activities. My favorites are our “Olympic” events. The groups generally include one head counselor, one junior counselor and four campers, make up the “Olympic teams”. We have many activities over the week that enhance the group dynamic, but also teach the children that winning isn’t everything. While the teams make up the audience, one team performs the event while the others cheer them on. It isn’t winning or losing that is the goal; it is the camaraderie, good sportsmanship, and support of others that counts. Events this year included the ball in the basket toss. A beeper is put in a laundry basket, and teams are asked to throw the balls in. The team that gets the most balls in wins. Easy enough one would think. But to make it a little bit harder, and because some of the children have some limited vision, we blindfold everyone. Not quite so easy. We also had a shooting event. Water guns. Turkey roaster pan hanging from a tree. Me banging on the pan so they can tell where the pan is located. Lots of fun, but the most fun was seeing where on my body they would shoot me when they missed the turkey pan! Unfortunately, they did not get any extra points for shooting the camp director! Another very humorous event was a twist on the old standby game…the dressing game. In a laundry basket there are a pair of pants, a man’s long sleeve dress shirt, a tie and a hot. The “athlete” is supposed to put the clothes on and race down to the person at the other end of the line, who is wildly calling their name so they can find them. Getting to the person is the easy part, putting the clothes on, blindfolded, is the hard part, especially when the person before you has left one of the sleeves in the shirt inside out. Or trying to put the tie on after the hat was on their head. Or holding up the ill fitting pants while they ran. In this game, none of the audience could cheer the athlete on because they were laughing so hard. We also had a pizza box challenge. For this Olympic event, I put up a yellow plastic rope tied to a chair where the event started. Using a talking caution cone which would sound an alarm when you came near it, the athletes could find their way along the rope and turn at the caution cone, heading back to the start. Carrying a pizza box. Then 2 pizza boxes, then 3, then 4, then 5. The team that completed it in the shortest amount of time won the event. There were several other events to the Olympics with the purpose of having fun and fostering a team spirit. Of course, when the awards ceremony came, each of the teams had won at least one event, so everyone won a medal for their efforts, (a Brailled, bright, changing color medal with the name of the Olympics in large print.)
Another activity we do at camp, of course, is arts and crafts. Everyone painted frames. EVERYONE painted frames. You do not have to be sighted to paint. After they were painted, we had a wide variety of doo dads with which they could decorate their frames. Tactile, three-dimensional stickers which were easy for everyone to use. My favorite was the young camper who painted her frame like a flower and then stuck bees all around it. Although the children may be blind, they still like to show off the group picture that will be placed in their frames. A picture of all of their friends. Lots of friends. All who have vision problems similar to theirs.
We have also always done a group art project, one that hangs in our office at work and two that we give away to important state administrators who support us in this camp endeavor. This year, we did rainbows. The colors of the rainbow were outlined in puffy paint so that the campers could tell where one color ended and another began. Then, everyone put their fingerprints to fill in the colors. Hundreds of big and little fingerprints. After the fingerprints had dried, we then had them glue on tactile items of the same color. For example, for the red color I had real little birds, (well, not REAL little birds, but little birds about 1/3 inch high,) apples, hearts, gemstones, (fake, of course) and so forth. For the orange color we had plastic oranges, flowers cut from a branch of artificial flowers, glitter orange stars, and so forth. This activity not only creates a beautiful 3 dimensional rainbow, but it also helps the campers with color identification. Many of them did not know that a heart was red or that apples could be red, green or yellow. (I had a variety of colors of apples just to demonstrate the point.) Someone glued clouds from pillow material, and someone put down a tissue sun. It came out incredibly awesome!
I feel very strongly that children, ALL children, should volunteer and give back to their community. When you have a disability, often you get used to others doing things for YOU. I need these children, as I’ve taught my own children, to know that anyone is capable of giving back, of volunteering, of doing something good for others. As our special project this year, we used Ziploc bags. On one side, the children decorated them with tactile stickers, ribbons, lettering and glitter. The fronts of all of their bags say “Thank You”, in print and in Braille. On the back of their bags, they could choose the stickers of their choice…monster trucks, flowers, spiders, ice cream items, a soldier, and so forth. Then we took the children to the local dollar store and gave them each $7 so they could buy 6 items themselves to fill the bag with toiletry items for soldiers in Iraq. From this lesson, we learned about the brave men and women who are fighting for their country. How it is hot and sandy there and there are no Walmarts or drug stores where they can buy the basic necessities such as soap and toothpaste. The children each made their own thoughtful list of items they wanted to buy. They learned the $7 bought only 6 items because there is a tax we all have to pay. One by one, the children went into the store, shopped, and spent their money. 5 toiletry items and 1 “fun” item. The fun items included such things lollypops, playing cards, gum, yo yos, hard candy, perfume and hair gel, (for one boy who insisted the soldier who got his bag would want to spike his hair into a mow-hawk.) The children then came back to camp and joyously filled their bags. It was a wonderful learning experience for them, they had great fun doing it, and they learned that anyone can do something for someone else. Once completed, we had 50 bags stuffed to the brim to donate to Give2TheTroops, Inc., which sends such bags to Iraq, Not too shabby of a day!
Many other wonderful experiences happened at camp this year, and I will write more at another time. Right now, I am pooped from all of the unpacking, and my bed is calling. I did not see much of my bed during camp for some reason…