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Fall 1999 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Mel Huff, The Brownsville Herald, Brownsville, Texas
Reprinted with permission by the Brownsville Herald

A young girl with shoulder-length brown hair held a starfish upside down in her cupped hand and touched the mouth at its center. "Look at that!" Brittany Madsen exclaimed as the thing curled a leg.

Madsen, a white cane tucked under her arm, crowded around a table with other students who were examining seaweed, urchins and other creatures in one of several large plastic trays. At the head of the table, Scarlet Colley held a large hermit crab close to a group of students.

"This is a red hermit crab," she said. "He's got green, green eyes!"

"Awesome!" another girl breathed.

The students were taking a hands-on tour of marine life with environmental educators George and Scarlet Colley on South Padre Island. The students could have been any children at camp, but these children are visually impaired.

For seven years now the Region I Education Service Center has held camps for blind students. For the last three years, children from Region II in Corpus Christi and Region III in Victoria have joined them. The camp was designed with parents as well as children in mind, said Peter Graves, who wrote the original grant proposal with Linda Chromaster. Both are Region One education specialists and certified vision instructors. Graves noted that it's hard for lots of parents to let a child with a disability go away and develop independence. "Our goal is to help parents learn to relax," he said. At the same time, children with disabilities can have a hard time developing independent living skills.

Graves said he expects that many campers will go to camps sponsored by the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin in the future. Our camp is a "first camp experience" close to home. If they have never been away from home before, the transition is much more difficult. "This helps prepare them and their families," Graves said.

This is the second year Jessica Blake, 8, has been to the camp. Her mother, Cheryl Blake, said going to camp again was all Jessica could talk about since January. "They learn they can do things by themselves. It really builds their confidence," she said. Blake, a nurse at Valley Baptist Medical Center, volunteered to help with her daughter's camp this year. "Homesick youngsters can call home at no charge at night, and parents can call or visit camp to see how their children are doing," Blake said.

The children were at Jeremiah's Water Park on Wednesday. The park has a trail with railings on both sides, Graves noted, so "once kids get the feel of it, they're on their own, (although) we're always there watching."

Since Monday, the 32 campers, ages 7-18 have gone fishing on the Island Princess, played at Jeremiah's, driven at Ben's Go-Karts and ordered dinners at Blackbeard's.

"Most haven't had these kinds of experiences," Graves said. "We have children who have never been to the beach, who have never been to a buffet or ordered a meal in a restaurant." One camper last year had never seen a dishwasher.

Camp refines the children's skills for daily living, said Christie Waida, a teacher from Region III in Victoria. The campers make their breakfasts and lunches, pick up their clothes, and make their beds. "Some have never made their sandwich or put a toaster pop in the toaster," Waida said. Graves gives the campers money to buy their own dinners, and they have to figure out how much they can spend for a meal, adding in their drink and tip. They order from menus Graves types in Braille.

In addition to providing campers the experience of responsibility, camp gives children the experience of freedom. Wednesday evening many campers who will never drive a car controlled the speed and steered go-karts, with a teacher telling them when to turn right or left. "At first I said, `Oh, no! Am I going to drive?'" said Hilda Niño, a 16-year-old student from Rivera High School. "Then I said, `This is really cool!'"

"I don't like to go out at night," remarked Yesenia Burgos, also 16 and a student at Lopez. (Burgos has limited night vision.) "We crashed a couple of times, but it was really fun!" she added. Burgos said the camp offers visually impaired students an opportunity to meet others who are like them.

"They don't treat us differently," Niño said. "At school, they are afraid of talking to you or even touching you. Here they aren't." This is Niño's second year at camp and Burgos' third. Some children have come back for four or five years. Many teachers and lifeguards also come back year after year.

Waida talks about witnessing "the wonder of discovery" when she watches campers touch a fish for the first time or hold a fiddler crab and see how soft its claws are or experience what a wave is. "This is the greatest refresher and learning experience I have all year," she said. "It reminds me why I decided to dedicate my life to teaching."

Fabian Lara has been a lifeguard at the camp for three years. After the first year, he changed his major to education for the hearing and vision impaired. "Some of these kids had never been near the water," he said. "Just to see their expression change" when they get in is what draws him back every year.