Sunday, July 16, 2006

Camp VISION for the visually impaired

Ten-year-old Keenan Provencher is just like any other boy his age. A soon-to-be fifth-grader at Allendale Elementary School, he likes the Boston Red Sox and playing baseball — even though he can't see.

"A lot of people don't understand. They can't pitch the ball to us. We have to hit it off a tee or a cone," he said yesterday.

And now, just like any other kid, he and others can enjoy a full summer camp experience thanks to the creators and supporters of Berkshire County's Camp VISION — Visually Impaired Students in our Neighborhoods.

The nonprofit camp, which operates out of Allendale, was started by Lynn Shortis and Wendy Provencher, Keenan's mother, through local donations gathered about two years ago to provide a safe,

Anthony Pansecchi, 16, listens to the time from Celeste Wheelock's watch. Pansecchi and Wheelock are blind, however Wheelock is a councilor. Photos by Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff

social and educational setting for blind and visually impaired youth.

Shortis, the only full-time teacher for the visually impaired in Berkshire County, estimated there are 12 to 15 visually impaired youths in the county's kindergarten through Grade 12 schools, four of whom are participating in the camp.

Aside from Keenan, the camp is attended by Hope Daniels, 7, and Kara Curtin, 10. Daniels also attends Allendale and Curtin goes to St. Mary's School in Lee.

"I think it's a great idea," said Anthony Pansecchi, 16, who both helps and participates at the camp. He will be a freshman this fall at Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire.

He and Celeste Wheelock, 21, a recent Pittsfield High School graduate who will be a sophomore at Berkshire Community College, said that they never had a local camp experience like the three youngsters do now.

The two next closest programs for students are at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.

"If this program wasn't here, then Hope and the other kids wouldn't learn how to take care of themselves with everyday life like cooking, cleaning, getting around town, etc.," said Ronda Finger, Hope's mother.

"I think it's the best camp for us," said Keenan. "And there's people here that I know I can trust."
Though the camp activities and games help the youth develop their orientation skills, the most important part of Camp VISION, it seems, is helping campers see themselves as confident, can-do individuals.

Incidentally, all the campers were born prematurely, which caused their impairments. But they all attend classes with their seeing classmates. They have since learned to use Braille and other "talking" gadgets such as watches and computers. They also rely on their other senses, as well as canes and other guides to move around.

Though they have accepted the fact that they lack vision, they still struggle with accepting it as a way of life.

"I want to see, but I can't," Hope said.

"Sometimes it makes me feel bad that I'm blind," she added. "Everybody at my school can see and it makes me feel like I can't fit in. It makes me feel like an ugly duckling. ... I wish I would have a quiet life instead. I would like to just be me."

Keenan said he would like kids of all abilities to come to the camp so they can share their differences and similarities.

Keenan's brother Isaiah, 6, and Kara's sister, Anita, 7, who both have vision, do attend camp on occasion.

"Some kids don't understand the concept of differences," said Kara's mother, Helen Coty-Curtain. She said that it was good for both her daughters to have this experience.

Rachael Wilson and Caitlin Hammond, both 16, of Lenox, volunteer at the camp. Both have vision and said they've learned at lot from working both with the younger campers and someone like Wheelock who is closer to their age group.

"Celeste can show them things we can't, like how to use Braille or fold bills," said Hammond.
"You realize they can do the same things as any other kid," said Wilson.

"No matter what happens, no matter what I am, that doesn't mean I'm not a normal person. Just because you're blind doesn't mean you're not a human," Keenan said.

The camp runs one 12-week session in the summer and holds an after-school program on Tuesdays, as well as other special events during the year.


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