A respite for campers and families in Spring Valley.

September 10, 2005.
Journal News, NY State.

What: Vacation Camp for the Blind accepts applications in January for campers and their families. Each of the five summer sessions running from June to August is geared toward different ages and abilities. The camp also accepts applications in September for special weekend getaways in the fall, winter and spring.

Where: 111 Summit Park Road, Spring Valley

Information: VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 500 Greenwich St., 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212-625-1616, Ext. 135; toll free 1-888-245-8333, Ext. 135

E-mail: Camp@visionsvcb.org or nnowak@visionsvcb.org

In early June, counselors at the Vacation Camp for the Blind took turns being blindfolded and practicing different sports activities.

They bowled using ramped lanes and learned to listen and count the number of pins knocked down. Counselors played T-ball using a soccer ball equipped with a bell and ran around a modified baseball field that only uses first and third base.

Soon their improved sense of smell, hearing and touch would be put to use, as they worked with blind, sighted and multiply disabled children and adults who were escaping from the noise of the city and the challenges of disability at the camp in Spring Valley.

The camp, which just completed its 79th season late last month, is licensed as a temporary residence rather than a summer camp, hosting parents and children of campers in the family cabins.

First founded in 1926 in Rye, it is run by VISIONS Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a nonprofit that provides education, rehabilitation and social activities for blind New Yorkers.

This summer, the camp was home to 408 visitors who took part in modified sports, family style meals and a custom-designed swimming pool with a ramp for wheelchair users and sprinklers that alert blind campers to the pool's edges.

For sighted family members who accompanied blind campers, it was a respite from the heat and a chance to meet others who are also caregivers.

"Camp is my only true vacation," said Maria Garcia, whose daughter, Elora, 8, is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy.

As Elora returned from the computer lab early last month, her mother watched her walk into the pool's gentle slope. "My child is taken care of, and I can lounge by the pools and have a genuine rest." This was Garcia's fifth year at the camp with her daughter.

Garcia, 45, a paramedic for the New York City Fire Department, had also been able to network with other parents, whose encouragement helped her become the president and founder of Parents of Blind Children of New York.

Much of the 35-acre campground has rails and raised walkways with tape markings to show the location of bunks. The pool, dog run, computer center and sports fields are labeled with raised type and Braille for easy identification.

"I don't use my cane here as much," said Carmen Kichenama, 48, a Manhattan resident who became blind five years ago. "I don't need it. It is such a relief to let it go and use the railing. I feel more at ease, and I know that people won't bump into me, like in the city."

Like Kichenama, 72 percent of the campers were from New York City, with the remainder traveling from upstate New York, Westchester, Rockland, New Jersey, Connecticut and other parts of the country.

The camp's funding comes from a number of sources, including the Lion's Club, the New York State Commission for the Blind and the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Campers are also asked to contribute, but financial resources are not a qualification for acceptance.

For both adult and teen campers, late afternoon bingo games in the canteen and singalongs in the cafeteria gave way to gossip and giggles about summertime crushes.

"What happens at camp stays at camp," joked Kichenama. "Romance isn't just for sighted people. They aren't the only ones who know how to scheme and flirt."

Though the sighted and blind mixed almost seamlessly in the camp setting, there were still moments of disagreement or misunderstanding. Dave Durber, 55, the camp computer specialist, admitted that during the course of the summer he sometimes lost patience with sighted campers and adults.

"My roommate left the door open to the shaving cabinet," said Durber, a Britain-born Queens resident. "A door is a lethal weapon to a blind person. It is hard to explain this to a sighted person."

As a reminder to sighted campers and staff, most buildings bore signs requesting that doors stay closed.

But with the diversity of staff, including counselors who were blind, sighted, college students, international travelers and senior citizens, learning to accommodate differences had many rewards.

"I think I realized how much it was teaching my children the year my family was put at a table with special needs campers," said Roxanne Simms, 53, the camp's program director, who first attended the camp in 1981 as a camper.

Simms, who is a social worker and counselor at Selis Manor, a residential and educational center for the blind in Manhattan, started using a wheelchair after being hit by a car while walking with her guide dog nine years ago.

"After my accident, I decided to find out what I could still do. And if I didn't feel it was a very safe place, I wouldn't have come back," she said.

Source URL: http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050910/NEWS03/509100306/1019

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