Saturday, August 02, 2008

Camp allow visually impaired children to become more independent

'Mix! Mix! Mix! Mix!"

Seven students gathered around a table chanting encouragement as Julia Figueirido whisks together a bowl of ingredients for pot roast seasoning.

Leading the chant is Nancy Dunbar Sogan, a short woman brimming with energy. Once the roast is cooking, she helps the group blend a rice pudding, then leads a rousing chorus of "We are the champions."

Making pot roast and rice pudding is cause for celebration because the students whipping up the meal are all blind or visually impaired.

They're taking part in a week-long camp at W. Ross Macdonald School that teaches independent living skills. Dubbed Camp Freedom, the camp moved from Orangeville to Brantford this year.
The 19 campers have come from across the province. Many of them are students at integrated schools, where the focus is on curriculum and not skills like cooking, laundry and personal hygiene that they'll need to live on their own.


"A lot of them have never washed dishes before," says camp director Julie Spry. "Now they've learned to turn on the water, adjust the temperature and add the right amount of soap."
Julia Figueirido, 12, says her favourite part of the camp is doing laundry. She has never washed a load of clothes on her own before.

"I only put the clothes in the washer. Mom would put the detergent in and move the clothes from the washer to the dryer."

The camp isn't all about learning skills. They have also gone swimming, roller blading, and had a water fight, with the kids calling "Here!" to help the others aim water balloons at them.
"We try to do it in a really fun way," says organizer Kelly Henderson. "It's camp, so we want it to be fun."

Henderson started the camp two years ago. An orientation and mobility instructor for 15 years, she saw that instruction in basic skills was lacking.

Julia is one of the low vision campers. She says she can see about half of what a person with 20/20 vision can see.

Only six of the children taking part are blind. The rest range somewhere along the spectrum of low vision, including some with tunnel vision or light perception.

"We have the full gamut from pitch black to children that have small areas of acute vision," Spry says.

Spry is president of Views Ontario, which is funding the camp. The organization is made up of parents of low-vision children and professionals who work with them.

The charge per student is $250, but the actual cost is closer to $1,000. Views is making up the difference.

When all the roasts are cooking, the students head outside to the courtyard where there are four blue picnic tables set up with woodworking kits and flower planters. Molly Burke, who opted for
woodworking, waits patiently while the instructor sets nails into the sides of her wooden box. Her guide dog, Gypsy, relaxes in the shade under the picnic table.

"Do I get to hammer again?" she asks.

The instructor passes her the hammer and guides her hands to the box. Careful not to nick the fingernails she has painted black with white polka dots, Molly hammers the nails the rest of the way in.

Spry acknowledges the students won't suddenly be able to cook a full meal or build a wooden box by themselves, but says it's an important step.

Many of the children taking part in the camp are tactile, meaning they "see" the world through their fingertips. They're often cautious about touching things because well-meaning but overprotective friends and relatives warn them away.

Spry says that's like telling a sighted child not to look at something.

"This is really about taking away their fears." A side benefit, but an important one, is the
chance for the campers to meet other visually impaired kids. Students who go to integrated schools are often the only visually impaired people there.

Spry says they're busy swapping e-mails and MSN addresses so they can keep in touch.
Molly Burke has to leave early, so she starts saying her goodbyes when her wooden box in finished. She slips off Gypsy's harness, signalling the dog is off duty and the other students can give her a farewell pat.

It's not goodbye forever, though; Molly is starting Grade 9 at W. Ross Macdonald in September.
"When I'm sitting in that social worker's office for new students, you'd better be sitting beside me," warns Michelle Woolfrey.

"I'll be there," Molly relies. "See you guys in September."


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