Growing up with a visual impairment had its challenges, yet it also provided me with far reaching opportunities that ultimately helped me plan, prepare and become the professional I am today. There are hundreds of childhood experiences that I can draw upon which have influenced and guided me to my career path. However, one theme stands out. When I reflect back on my time in summer camp I smile widely and remain thankful for that time in my life.
I attended my neighborhood public school and was mainstreamed with sighted peers. While that was a great learning opportunity, I missed a lot of the hands-on learning experiences. Because I wore big thick bifocals teachers said I was “partially sighted,” and assumed that I could see more than I did. Not knowing much about self-advocacy, I took their word for it and made the best of school. By the time I was nine years old, knowing that there would be 8 weeks of uninterrupted play in the summer was what helped me focus on the remainder of the school year. I was motivated to work hard in school because I knew that once school was out I was headed off to summer camp! Little did I know that stepping into the outdoor classroom for anywhere to one to three-weeks each summer would shape my career goals as an adult.
From third grade on, when summer arrived and the option to attend both day camp and longer sleep-over camp sessions presented themselves, I jumped at the chance to get out and play. I looked forward to hanging out with my blind and low -vision peers. The opportunity to reconnect with blind peers at camp, and talk about our school frustrations and happy moments, provided us all with the chance to actively learn from each other as we shared our similar experiences. Moreover, summer camp afforded us all with tangible hands-on and multi-sensory learning experiences. Unlike school, where we often just read about things; at camp also felt, touched, and smelled as we learned. Activities like learning how to ride on a tandem bike, boogie board at the beach, shoot arrows at targets, and pack a picnic lunch were just a few snippets of what my growing skills, confidence, and independence looked like at camp. When it came to overnight camp, there were even more lessons including setting up a tent, packing a sleeping bag, and cooking over a propane stove.
As I grew into my teenaged years, I volunteered with the younger kids at camp and applied to work as a Camp Counselor in Training (CIT). Volunteer experiences offer lessons both big and small. I learned how to lead a group of seven to ten eager and active blind kids, while easing into the role of authority figure, mentor, entertainer, counselor, and group leader. Working as a CIT was one of the more defining and challenging experiences of my high school years. Along the way I gained more confidence and learned how to build trust with the younger campers I supervised, my CIT peers, and camp leaders. The skills I gained as a CIT volunteer led to another opportunity, that of working at summer camps as a paid camp counselor. Through summer camp I learned that I had natural talents for networking and building connections with others. Along the way I also learned I wasn’t as good at arts and music projects; but my experiences both as a camper, and later as a paid camp counselor, were the highlights of my youth.
Working as a camp counselor I was assigned to every good and every unsavory job summer camp had to offer. There were so many learning opportunities, and looking back I am grateful for them. In assigning chores to my young campers, I learned that some of my campers were great working with their hands, and enjoyed working on the maintenance team; while others were good with food prep and kitchen oversight, and loved kitchen duty. There are so many different ways summer camp empowers kids to explore how their interests and natural gifts can lead to actually enjoying taking responsibility for doing chores. Summer camps still offer a wide array of experiences where young campers quickly learn what they are good at and what they would rather not do again. Knowing what you like and don’t like is the foundation of self-determination, a critical life skill.
I’ve been fortunate to work among excellent leaders in the field of summer camps including Mark Lucas, Julie Lach, Tony Fletcher, Shirley Manning and countless others. I am grateful for these epic experiences that I can now pay forward. At camp I learned about my natural gifts with mentoring and connecting with people. That early understanding of my strengths and interests led to my career as a counselor, transition specialist, and educator. I frequently draw upon the life-changing experiences from summer camp as I speak to blind and low-vision high school and college students. I share how the team building exercises offered through residential and day camp programs provided me with the building blocks for self confidence that I’ve relied on to become competitive and gainfully employed in a job I love.
Summer camps come in all sizes and flavors. You can find camps to match your child’s interests: from STEM activities, to sports and fitness, to music, to nature. It’s never too early to investigate which camp is right for your child and family. If you want to learn more about summer camp for children who are blind or low vision, CareerConnect has the perfect webinar for you: “Blind Kids Just Want to Have Fun,” on December 9th from 3:00pm-4:30pm (Eastern Time). Join us for a panel of 5 current camp programs from around the US. The panel will explore both virtual and in person camp opportunities for youth and the entire family. Click here to learn more about this webinar and register.