Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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Memories from Minneapolis

by Benjamin Dallin

Reprinted from The Student Slate: The Newsletter of the National Association of Blind Students, Fall 2010

Buddies love pool parties!From the Editor: Ben Dallin is currently a junior at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he studies history and international relations. In 2008 he completed adjustment-to-blindness training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Last summer he had the chance to pass on the skills he learned to a group of middle school students at BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis.

Not long after I got on the plane to Minneapolis, Minnesota, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. A college student about my age, he was returning home from a vacation. As we told each other about our summer plans, I realized that I had only the vaguest idea of what I would be doing. I knew that I was going to be a counselor with the Buddy Program at BLIND, Inc. I would be working with blind kids ages nine to fourteen. Beyond that I knew almost nothing.

On the plane I began to realize I was embarking on an adventure. Despite my nervousness and uncertainty, I recognized that I would most likely have many educational and rewarding experiences. Over the next five weeks, both my trepidation and my positive expectations proved to be completely justified.

Although the Buddy Program itself lasted only three weeks, staff members arrived a week early for training. We also stayed for a week after the kids left, writing reports on the program's classes and activities. The four counselors spent the first week getting to know each other and the rest of the staff at BLIND, Inc. We became certified in first aid and CPR, reviewed policies and procedures, and learned about the individual Buddies. There would be four boys and six girls in the program, hailing from all parts of the country. We visited the dorms at the University of Minnesota where we would be staying with the kids.

My nervousness grew as the week progressed, but it dropped dramatically when the Buddies finally arrived. With the kids on board, there was no time for abstract worries and concerns. We plunged into our roles as counselors with full force.

One of the first things I realized about our kids was their resilience. No hardship in the camp experience phased them for long, including saying good-bye to their parents, adjusting to dorm life, and getting up at six-thirty in the morning to catch the bus over to BLIND, Inc. Sometimes they made me feel downright old! After a long day of classes and activities, when I would have liked nothing better than to fall into bed, the kids had other ideas. They were ready for wrestling matches, video games, and pillow fights. It could be frustrating at times, but I now recognize their energy and resilience as positive qualities. I think it is especially important for us as blind people to cultivate these qualities at an early age, as we must deal with many challenges in everyday life. The Buddies I had the privilege of knowing were off to a great start!

The three-week camp program offered a variety of activities designed to build the kids' confidence and improve their views of blindness. We had pool parties, picnics, and dinners at the homes of blind adults and staff members of the center. Many of these events allowed the Buddies to interact with blind teens and adults who were students and staff from the other programs at BLIND, Inc.

One of the most memorable highlights of the program was a camping trip up near the Wisconsin border. We slept in cabins, but all of our waking hours were spent outdoors. Everyone got to choose from a list of activities that included canoeing, tubing, fishing, and hiking. Based on our choices, we formed groups consisting of kids, teens, and adults. The day after we arrived at the campsite, we split into our groups and embarked on our respective journeys.

I went canoeing. I soon learned the importance of creative thinking as we struggled to stay together as a group in our canoes. Our efforts culminated in using a shoelace to tie two canoes together. It was a great experience and the kids seemed to have a wonderful time!

When we had all returned from our adventures, the Buddies were eager to tell stories and compare notes. They helped gather wood for a bonfire, and we spent that evening singing songs and roasting marshmallows. When we packed up and prepared to catch the bus back to Minneapolis the next morning, the Buddies were responsible for helping clean up the campsite. On the way back, they expressed their unanimous enjoyment of the trip. Besides having fun, they had improved their skills and learned about personal responsibility.

In contrast to our two-day camping trip, our visits to Wild Mountain Water Park and the Mall of America were crowded and noisy, with ample opportunities for us to become separated. I'm still amazed at how well the Buddies managed--for the most part--to stay together as a group. They also kept a very positive attitude, which was helpful as we navigated these challenging urban environments. Indeed, whenever I began to get frustrated, I realized how much the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves.

When we weren't venturing out into the city or participating in some other activity, we held classes at BLIND, Inc. The Buddies had classes in home management, Braille, computers, travel, and industrial arts. These classes parallel those taught in the adult programs of the NFB training centers. It was sometimes hard for the kids to make the transition from seeing us as counselors and friends to viewing us as their teachers.

It was wonderful to see the kids make progress and better realize their potential as blind people. Whether we were teaching them to make rubber-band guns in industrial arts or pour liquids and fold money in home management, we tried to emphasize that the alternative techniques of blindness are as effective as the techniques used by sighted people. I was often struck by how important it is for parents to have high expectations for their blind children. The intelligence and capabilities of the Buddies made it clear to me that childhood is the best time to learn basic skills and form positive views of blindness.

When I arrived in Minnesota, I didn't realize that my job as a counselor would call upon me to serve as a teacher, nurse, tour guide, housekeeper, and mediator. Sometimes I suspect that I learned more than the kids did. It was great to experience the NFB training centers from the perspective of a staff member rather than as a student. I sharpened my own skills as I tried to impart them to the Buddies, and I was reminded of the great importance of the NFB's mission.

On the final night of camp we held a dinner and talent show for the kids and their parents. As I said good-bye to the Buddies, I hoped more than anything that they came away from the program with more confidence and higher expectations for themselves. If they realize that blindness does not have to affect their potential to be happy and reach their goals, then our camp was truly a success.

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