Saturday, February 28, 2009

Visually impaired student from Tampa was picked for Grand Canyon trip

McKenna Murphy will spend two weeks this summer rafting and hiking in the Grand Canyon, studying ecology and Native American culture and restoring a house.

The 14-year-old is one of 10 blind or visually impaired students from the United States and Canada chosen for the "leadership adventure" excursion, offered by Global Explorers, a nonprofit organization that arranges educational and service trips for students.

McKenna was born with a condition called ocular albinism, which makes it hard for her eyes to process bright lights and glare. She cannot see in bright sunlight but sees well enough to read and take notes in a dimmer room. She reads without Braille. She has trouble with overhead projectors, but her eyes can adapt well enough to computer screens for her to work on a computer. She is also colorblind.

None of that, though, does much to slow down the Adams Middle School eighth-grader. McKenna helps her mother make decorative tiles, practices tae kwon do, loves to read, works in her school's media center and hopes to get accepted into the academically intense International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High School.

She wants to go to college but isn't sure what she wants to do.

"That's why I try my best in every area," she said. "So I have options."

Her drive to succeed and positive attitude made her a good fit for the Grand Canyon trip, said vision teacher Teresa Martinkovic, who works with McKenna weekly at school.

Martinkovic heard about the Grand Canyon trip and thought it would be perfect for McKenna.

"She's adventurous, and she likes to try new things," Martinkovic said. "She's just a cool kid."

McKenna has participated in other activities for visually impaired students, including two trips to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The 16-day Grand Canyon Trip in July will be part fun, part leadership training. It's one of two that Global Explorers is organizing as part of its "Leading the Way" program for visually and hearing-impaired students. The other is an April excursion to Costa Rica for deaf and hearing-impaired students.

McKenna's group will spend half its time rafting the Colorado River and hiking trails accessible only from the water. The students will meet scientists who will teach them about the ecosystem and discuss how tourism affects the environment.

The second half of the trip will focus on service and culture. Students will study Native American history and traditions. They also will join a service project, working on a house, and get guidance on individual projects the students will work on once they get home.

"I think this is going to be a really fun time," McKenna said.

Preparations for the trip have already started.

Each month, the students take part in a conference call so they can get to know one another, learn about the area and what they will be doing there. They also get homework. Meeting the other students has been fun, and they talk online regularly, McKenna said.

In April, they will spend two days in Colorado with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to scale Mount Everest. He has written two books about his experiences – one of which McKenna read -- and speaks to students about leadership.

The other aspect of the trip is fundraising, which Global Explorers requires as a leadership exercise. McKenna must raise $2,300 for the trip. She and Martinkovic are planning a raffle, where they are offering to clean the winner's house as a prize.

"M&M Housecleaning," Martinkovic said, joking.

McKenna's main project is selling decorative tiles that her mother, Nolia, an artist, makes. Normally $40, the family is selling them for $10 through her parents' e-mail address,

McKenna's mother developed the design -- a tree with high branches and winding roots wrapped around an acorn – and McKenna came up with the message in the middle: "Never underestimate the power inside of you."

Reporter Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at (813) 865-1503.


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