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Fall 2009 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Kate Hurst, Statewide Staff Development Coordinator, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Outreach

Abstract: Visually impaired and blind students traveled to Fort Davis for Camp Real World, and learned about science, history, and career planning. The students also enjoyed many recreational and social opportunities.

Keywords: Effective Practices, visually impaired, summer camp, science, history

Sometimes the real world is a great place to be. It is filled with interesting and fun people, scenic surroundings, and fascinating experiences. Sometimes everything comes together perfectly and you find yourself a part of something truly enriching. Vacations often provide this type of experience, and this year mine was no exception.

In the heat of July I traveled to Fort Davis, Texas and the Prude Ranch to participate in Camp Real World. This camping experience, sponsored by the Ft. Worth region of the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Division for Blind Services (DARS-DBS) and Region 15 Education Service Center in San Angelo, took place July 20-24, 2009. It included 22 visually impaired individuals and 12 of their sighted peers ranging in age from 6–19. Also participating in this wonderful camping experience were numerous staff members from DARS-DBS, Region 15 Education Service Center, and some of the local school districts where the students are served.

There are few places in Texas that can compete with the Ft. Davis area for beauty, history, and nature. Climbing into the Ft. Davis mountains, after leaving the interstate highway at Balmorhea, the air changes and the oppressive heat and exhaust fumes dissipate. Though still warm by some standards, when I arrived at the Prude Ranch, just outside of Ft. Davis, rain has washed the world clean. In the large, rustic dining room campers were already digging into their cowboy grub. The din of chatter and laughter echoed off the rafters.

Everyone was glad to be there though some were a little homesick. We all wandered around the campground after supper, trying to find our cabins and a cell phone signal so we could phone home. No luck with the cell phone signal, but with some adjustments people unpacked and headed to the meeting hall for dance lessons. Boots were scooted, hips were hopped, and everyone got down and funky. Talk about your ice-breakers! There is nothing like a crowded dance floor to bump into people. Some of us even learned to dance a decent two-step and the Tango Slide.

A Cowboy Breakfast is the only way to get going when there are so many things to do. First there was the trip to the Ft. Davis National Historic Site. The park ranger began our tour with some history of the fort and the region. Ft. Davis was an army post built in the mid-1800’s. Cavalry stationed there served to protect the pioneers and traders traveling west. Though destroyed by fire shortly after the Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1867 by Lt. Colonel Wesley Merritt with four companies of the 9th U.S. Calvary, the first of the African-American troops known as Buffalo Soldiers. Touring the barracks and other sites at the fort, students learned how hard life was for the early Ft. Davis pioneers and the soldiers who occupied the fort. There were many opportunities for hands-on exploration of the gear and equipment the soldiers used.

Returning to Prude Ranch for lunch, we hardly had time to catch our breath before we were trekking down the mountainside to participate in a ropes course. Working in teams the students had to scale a 14 foot wall, get each other through a “spider web” of ropes without disturbing the “spider”, and race on long board “skis” across the rocky ground. Besides brains, teamwork, and physical stamina, this course required everyone to overcome their fear of failure and/or heights for the good of their team.

Thank goodness we all had time for a refreshing swim and dinner before we climbed on the bus again for a trip to the McDonald Observatory. What an amazing experience! Mark Cash, our guide, took us into the observatory of the 107-inch telescope, where we got a hands-on experience of all things telescopic. Students had the opportunity to explore the telescope as it was rotated and positioned while they learned a lot about the work the astronomers do at McDonald. Watching the enthusiasm of some of the students, I was struck with the notion that one of these students might someday work there, now that much of the observation and data collection was done with computers. Leaving the observatory we participated in science demonstrations to understand the size of our own solar system. Then we joined the “Star Party”, looking through smaller telescopes to see Saturn, twin stars and other celestial wonders. One of our students with very little vision was stunned to learn that the spot of light he was seeing was a star. Though he could tell you many facts about stars and space, he had never known that a real star was seen by sighted individuals as a speck of light, not a five-point object. It made me realize how often our visually impaired students have faulty concepts about the world because of the way we teach these concepts. Even students who were totally blind, came away with a much better understanding of the universe and the types of careers that exist in the field of science.

Staff at the observatory have developed a number of innovative ways to teach visually impaired students about astronomy and the universe.

On day three of Camp Real World, Tamee Argo, DARS-DBS Transition Counselor, had organized a series of activities for the students to learn about another world—the world of work. They competed in teams to match various job titles with salaries and training requirements. They learned about safety and first aid. They also participated in work simulations in the areas such as archeology, clerical work, bicycle repair, and using a cash register.

In the afternoon, campers were treated to a living history lesson by the Traylor family. This husband and wife team, along with their daughter, son-in-law, and son, shared information about life in the region during the late 1800’s. Dressed in period costumes, they also gave the students an opportunity to learn about horses, milking cows, and making butter with a churn. They discussed typical jobs that each family member had during that time. Campers even had the opportunity to actually milk a cow and make fresh butter, a tasty snack when spread on crackers that tided us over until supper and homemade ice cream for dessert. Did you know you could make ice cream in a baggie?

No need to worry about gaining weight from the extra treats. Everyone had great fun after supper playing in our Camp Real World goal ball tournament. Many of the campers had never played goal ball before, and found they had a real talent for the sport. Vance Lankford from Region 15 ESC, with help from the DARS-DBS staff, taught us the game and served as coaches and referees during the tournament. Walking up the hill that night to my cabin, I hadn’t felt so tired in years.

Despite the fatigue from the night before, we were ready bright and early to travel to the Chihuahua Desert Nature Center. Everyone was amazed at the variety of plants and animals that are native to this desert region. The students carefully explored the cactus, sniffed the sage, and learned how bats and other creatures help in pollination. One of the students was especially interested in what he learned, and talked about getting a job like our guide when he was older.

This camp gave the students so many “real world” lessons it would be hard to say what had the most impact. However, I particularly enjoyed the lessons and skills that were utilized later that evening as they prepared for the end-of-camp dance with all the other campers at Prude Ranch. After an afternoon horseback ride and another swim, preparations began for the dance. The girls and guys dressed up in their best camp finery and made a promise that they would not turn down a dance invitation from their fellow Real World campers. Then it was off down the hill and into the throng of dancers in the gym. It was so much fun to see how well our group mixed with the other campers. There were a few wallflowers at the start of the dance, but before the night was over, everyone had seized the opportunity to boogie down.

It was a tired crew that found their way into the mess hall the next morning and made their way to the bus for the ride home. As I drove back down the mountain towards Austin I reflected on what a great experience going to camp was.

We are fortunate in Texas to have so many dedicated education and rehabilitation providers who work to pull off summer camp experiences for students with visual impairments. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of such an experience. These students learn that they can go away from home and do okay. They learn both social and academic skills. They learn about taking on a challenge, even when you are a little afraid of it, and succeeding. They make friends. They learn about their visual impairment in terms of what they CAN do rather than what they can’t. As an educator, I am reminded of how important experiential learning is and how many lessons can be taught while climbing a wall, milking a cow, learning a new dance, or playing goal ball.

If your son or daughter has never participated in a summer camp experience, you should consider letting them. Many of the DARS-DBS offices and Education Service Centers have day camps or overnight camps throughout the summer. Ask your TVI or O&M instructor what opportunities are available in your area. If you are an education or rehabilitation professional, consider volunteering to help with some of these camps. A summer camp experience is special for any kid, but especially for kids who are blind, visually impaired, or deafblind. Besides re-discovering the joys of camp, you’ll get some great ideas for instruction when the summer is over and school begins again.