Most American kids have the summer off from school. But that doesn't mean they aren't busy. Many spend their days at summer camp. Along with traditional camps that feature a variety of activities, there are specialized camps, that teach sports skills, or theater arts. There are also camps for kids with physical or mental disabilities. At Camp Lighthouse, blind and visually impaired youngsters create art, play sports, and develop a positive outlook on life.
On a hot summer day in Washington D.C. the kids at Camp Lighthouse are in the pool. Like campers everywhere, they cackle, jump and splash each other wildly.
"It's just a lot of fun. I just can't explain how much fun I have here," says Darkina, 12, who has been coming here every summer since she was 8. While playing in the water is fun, she and her fellow campers say there's more to Camp Lighthouse than swimming:
"This camp is very educational. I learned a lot of things. I learned new camp songs, I learned new games, new dances," Darkina says. "We watch movies and do activities outside.," Dovontay says. "We went to a baseball game yesterday," says Elizabeth. "When I got home. I was like -- 'no, no I want to go back to camp." "A couple days ago I went on a field trip to a place where they record books on tapes and CDs," Kelly says. "I got to hear a couple of pages of Harry Potter. We did finger prints. We do arts and crafts. And we go play on a lap top."
The non-profit service group, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, has sponsored this camp for nearly half-a-century, and hundreds of blind and visually impaired kids have grown up here. This summer, 34 campers are enrolled in the 2-week long session. Camp director Antoine Johnson says there are about the same number of volunteer counselors.
"The volunteers have been great," he says. "They are acting like big brothers and big sisters to the campers, engaging the campers in different activities answering the questions. They also learn about one another. It's a mutual thing."
Like the campers, volunteers often return summer after summer. Liz Teter, 17, is back. The high school student says volunteering helped her understand blindness as a challenge some people have to live with. "Last year when I first started volunteering with them, I was really surprised how independent they were," she says. "They were teaching me a lot of stuff, too. They knew their surroundings really well. They just use other senses."
Kelly, 8, says she likes talking with the volunteers and playing with her friends at camp. Unlike her classmates in public school, Kelly says, she finds everybody at Camp Lighthouse easier to deal with. "There are more people that are visually impaired, and more people that understand you better," she adds.
That's one of the reasons Camp Lighthouse was established. Michelle Tatro, of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB), credits the camp environment with reducing the social isolation that visual impairment often causes. "The parents that I meet expressed gratitude for being able to bring their children to some place where they have children who are able to group together, that have the same problems, where they can communicate, bond and make friendships," she says.
Ms. Tatro says the different social experiences campers get during their summer activities can change the way they look at themselves and their life. "I think that they are learning that they are capable of doing whatever they want," she says. "It might take them a longer while, but they are more than capable of participating in everyday activity as a sighted child would."
Camp Lighthouse is one of many programs provided for free by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. There's a pet picnic every June, "where we have farm animals that they (the kids) may never have the opportunity to see," Ms. Tatro says. There's also an annual Easter egg hunt, and Halloween and Christmas parties.
More recently, the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind had a Braille rally, "where visually impaired adults and children act as navigators for drivers," Ms. Tatro explains. "There is a path that they take. They read the map in Braille, large print; they tell the driver how to go where to turn and how to get back there."
Camp Lighthouse director Antoine Johnson says he'd like to add more summer activities. "This camp is for 2 weeks," he says. "If we were able to get the funding to do longer sessions, I'd like to see that."
And, no doubt, so would the kids … who are strengthening their independent living skills as they have fun in the sun.