by Ashley Lisenby
From the Editor: This article first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 27, 2016, and is reprinted here with their kind permission. We at the Monitor can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with the single comment on the online version of the article at <http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/visually-impaired-kids-from-st-louis-area-braille-camp-learn/article_dade1199-6de3-5a80-a35e-74518e3317ba.html>, “Yay for children learning life skills!”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A small group of blind and visually impaired children tap their canes on the yellow truncated platform at the Brentwood MetroLink stop as they enter a train. For many of the six children, participants in a two-week Braille literacy camp, boarding this train is their first time riding public transportation.
The camp, called the Missouri BELL Academy, operates out of the Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments and runs through Friday. Now in its third year, the camp accepts children from across the state ages four to twelve with varied reading and writing skills and different levels of vision impairment. It is one of many BELL programs run by the National Federation of the Blind across the country.
Camp leader Debbie Wunder and volunteer Braille teacher Adnan Gutic said the camp is important for teaching children the fundamentals of reading and writing but also for teaching life skills and providing adult mentors who may also be blind.
Before leaving the center in Richmond Heights, the children are prepped on how to distinguish a $1 bill from a $5 bill. Some may choose to fold one bill like a “hot dog” and the other like a “hamburger.” Others may opt to place different denominations of bills in separate compartments of their wallets.
On their last field trip the children, called bell-ringers at the camp, went to The Magic House. This time they already know their final destination—McDonald’s. First they have to navigate the train and bus.
Once on the train platform, a group of adults, many of whom also have varying levels of vision impairment, share safety tips with the children. For example, stand behind the bumpy strip and near a group of short poles—shoulder height to the young riders—in order to know where the train doors will open.
After riding the train and catching a bus, the group arrives at the golden arches.
“I smell Mickey D’s,” one child says upon exiting the bus.
The journey is enjoyable for most of the children, and they understand the importance of the field trip.
“If you live in the big city, you have to know how to ride public transportation so you know how to be safe while doing it,” said Nathan Deeds, ten, a second-year bell-ringer.
But some temporarily struggle with the sounds and sensations that come with riding public transit, such as the screeching of the train and the jerking motion of the bus.
Shianne Ramsey, six, of Jefferson City, admitted while taking bites of her meal that she was scared on the bus because of the abrupt motions, but later proudly proclaimed how she exhibits her independence in other ways. “I can buckle myself,” she said with a smile, adding that she felt great when she accomplished tasks on her own.
For camp leaders and volunteers, that’s the goal: self-sufficiency.
Wunder even questioned a McDonald’s cashier who said an employee would bring the group their food.
“Is that what you do for everyone?” she asked, later turning to encourage one child, saying, “You gotta do it for yourself, buddy. You can do it.”
Holly Carneal, twenty-two, a student studying social work at University of Central Missouri and a camp volunteer who was born blind, wants camp participants to know they can do what most people with sight can do.
“It’s nice to be independent and not rely on other people,” Carneal said. “It gives you a sense of confidence by using a bus or the MetroLink. It’s important for them, when they’re young, to know they can do whatever they want in life.”