Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1998, Vol. 17 No. 1

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It's Not Just Any Summer
by Lucy Wassef

From the Editor: The following article was submitted along with a letter of explanation by Lucy Wassef. In her letter Ms. Wassef, who is a young blind adult, explained her motives for taking the time to research and submit this article. She said, in part:

"As a child, summers were for me very special. I knew I would be going to camp and seeing all my friends again. My camp experience made a tremendous impact on who I am now. Because of this I decided to share this information on the benefits of attending summer camp for blind and visually impaired kids."

This sounded great, but since I did not know Ms. Wassef or anything about the camp for the blind she describes in this article, I promptly called Joe Ruffalo, president of the NFB of New Jersey. Joe didn't know Lucy (he will change that, however), but he could vouch for the camp. The camp director, Phill Cocilovo, has been very open to working with the NFB of New Jersey to find ways to improve the camp experience for blind kids. He is, for example, actively seeking competent blind applicants to fill camp positions at all levels. Therefore, with Joe's enthusiastic recommendation, here is Lucy Wassef's article:

Summer is here and the kids are out of school. Now what to do?

A popular activity is going away to camp. But for a blind or visually impaired child, camp is more than just another summer activity. As a visually impaired college student I now understand the many benefits of attending summer camp with other children like me.

Nestled in New Jersey on a quiet country lane is Camp Marcella. For one or two weeks kids spend their days and nights with other kids who share a common factor. They all are blind or visually impaired. Camp Marcella's new director, Phill Cocilovo, said most of the kids are mainstreamed in public schools. Bill Fagan, the education supervisor for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, described visual disability as the "lowest incidence disability in the school age population." In a school district there might be an average of three or four children with a vision problem. Most likely these children will not be close in age and will not even meet each other. Personally, I did not meet another person who was blind or visually impaired until I went to camp at age nine.

Cocilovo and Fagan agree that camp allows visually impaired kids to meet other kids like them. At camp everyone has a vision problem. "They are the norm, not the exception," said Cocilovo. Because of this, campers can share their experiences with each other. Being able to share my school stories with my fellow campers, I realized we went through the same things. It is important for the child to understand they are not the only child in the world who is blind or visually impaired, to know that there are other kids like them.

Maybe the most important aspect of meeting other kids are the friendships that develop. The friendships can last for more than the time spent at camp. During camp it is easy to make friends because you get to know everyone just by living with them a couple of weeks. The vision factor that separates us from our friends in school, brings us closer to our friends at camp. Now, at age 22, I still keep in touch with camp friends from when I was 10 years old. Even though we might rarely see each other, we know there's a common bond between us.

It is that commonality that allows campers to participate freely in all the activities. Activities in Camp Marcella include arts and crafts, physical education, music, nature, swimming, boating, and a library. In the regular school system some of these activities may not be fully accessible to the child. Cocilovo explained that the camp activities are geared for the campers. He said, "They can participate in all the activities. Everything is adaptive."

Fagan said that camp provides blind and visually impaired kids a chance to be "exposed to experiences [they] might not have" in a mainstream program. In some cases, they might be excluded from certain activities because of their vision. For example, if the class is learning basic sewing skills, the blind or visually impaired child could be told they do not have to participate in the project.

Fagan explained that campers are provided direct contact with experiences that they usually have only minimal contact with in regular programs. In school I would be excused from various games because my vision was an obstacle. Camp accommodated us. In softball, bases were marked by a person standing by it or a bright color next to it, and the size of the ball was bigger than usual and/or had a bell inside it. In arts & crafts, the projects did not require much sight. We used our hands mostly. My favorite pastime at camp was swimming. Fagan stated that learning to swim is a life-long skill. Most kids learn to swim at camp.

Many of these activities require physical motion. Fagan said a lot of blind and visually impaired kids engage in "sedentary type activities" like listening to the radio or using the television. Camp provides opportunity for mobility and travel. Whether it is taking a nature walk through the woods or walking independently around camp, Fagan said these types of actions "promote physical movement that has a lot to do with fostering a positive self image."

Cocilovo also mentioned that kids gain independence and self-confidence from being at a special camp for the blind. Cocilovo said his camp provides kids with Activities for Daily Living, (ADL). Some ADL activities are: making a bed, deciding what to wear that day, helping clean off the table after meals, and taking part in cleaning the cabin or living space.

Cocilovo further explains that the tasks are presented in a fun and supportive fashion so they do not seem like chores. After campers return home, he receives letters and calls from parents telling him how their child now helps with chores around the house. At Camp Marcella, cabin clean-up is an event for which campers are rewarded. He said camp provides a "good atmosphere for learning good life skills."

A camp experience for blind and visually impaired children can foster their development in numerous ways. Campers expand their social skills and get a chance to network and make contacts with other kids who also are blind or visually impaired. Through this they come to the realization that they are not a rare minority. Rather there are other kids they can relate to and who can relate to them. Because of this, friendships are created which could last a lifetime. When children keep returning to camp, the friendships become stronger and stronger.

While children are having fun and making new friends, they are also gaining skills that will better them for life. Their self-esteem increases because they are doing things on their own. And all these factors help the children gain their independence.

For a blind kid, "it's not just any summer" when you have a good camp experience to look forward to.

Editorial Comment: Camp Marcella accepts New Jersey residents only. For information about the camp contact the New Jersey Commission for the Blind at (973) 648-3333. It is important to check out any camp for the blind you are considering for your child. Not all camps for the blind are equal in quality. The benefit of meeting and living with other blind and visually impaired children may be offset in a camp that operates from the basis of custodial and restrictive attitudes about blindness. Visit the camp you are considering. Ask questions. Do they have any blind employees? Do they encourage or discourage the use of canes? How much do they expect independence in the dining hall, and other places? What kind of training in blindness skills do the counselors have? Finally, ask members of the National Federation of the Blind about the camp. Do they recommend it? If you need help locating the NFB in your area, you may contact me, Barbara Cheadle, at 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. Phone: (410) 659-9314.

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