Saturday, November 07, 2009

NASA space camp provides the experience of a lifetime to visually impaired students

Sitou Agbakpem admits that he often becomes depressed thinking about his future and how he will cope with his life.

His fears are understandable. In three to five years, he's going to be blind.

The Pattonville High School junior suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative nerve disease that he has had since childhood. Now, the disease is advancing at a faster rate.

"I cannot say that I'm not scared," Sitou, 16, said. "I get depressed and worried about my life."

However, for one week in October, Sitou received some reassurance from other teenagers from around the world.

He and 15 other visually-impaired students from Missouri attended NASA's Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

At the camp, he met hundreds of students with the same medical concerns. They came from Canada, Ireland, Australia, Dominica, Oklahoma, West Virginia, South Carolina and Utah.

Sitou is from West Togo, Africa. He lives with his mother and both hope to become United States citizens.

As one of two visually-impaired Pattonville High students, he was happy to talk with other students and found they had similar worries and fears.

"It was a great experience for me," Sitou said. "We talked about our futures and how we take care of our lives. The trip gave me a positive outlook. We exchanged shirt pins and our telephone numbers."

The camp also was a lot of fun. The participants had medical problems, but they still had a teenager's love of fun.

They met an astronaut, constructed and launched rockets, learned about space history and experienced weightlessness with simulators. The campers also listened to a blind NASA engineer who talked about his life and the obstacles he overcame to reach his position.

The free trip was sponsored by the Lighthouse for the Blind in St. Louis.

"The kids love it," said Angie Yorke, manager of the Lighthouse's Blind Community Enrichment Programs. "The best thing they come away with is new friendships," she said. "It does them a lot of good to meet other kids from around the world. They try and stay in touch with each other."

Sitou was accompanied by Alexis Moore, who specializes in teaching the visually impaired at Pattonville High. Seven chaperones went with the Missouri contingent.

"Actually, we didn't have a lot to do," Moore said. "None of us were involved in the activities. The camp staff had their own counselors for the kids. The atmosphere was great, though. The kids had a good time. Sitou really enjoyed himself."

The teacher is no stranger to Space Camp. She has accompanied other students for several years. She believes in its value.

"Sitou and I are going back next year," she said. "This will be advanced Space Camp. We're both looking forward to it."

Previously, Sitou showed no particular interest in outer space. However, the NASA Space Camp intrigued him when he first heard about it.

"Now, I'm excited about outer space," he said. "I'm thinking about why they go to space and what they are going to do when they get there."

If NASA sends people to Mars, Sitou will be one of the first.

However, for college, he is interested in studying a different kind of science.

"I want to study political science," Sitou said. "That is a different kind of thing."


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