Visually impaired Alaska children learn at sports camp

Volunteers help youngsters shoot straight, ride tandem bikes, swim.

July 18, 2010 

A grade school kid with a bow and arrow might be a little scary. Now imagine 25 of them, children and teenagers with bows and arrows, almost all of them legally blind.

Nervous? Don't be. At Camp Abilities, a four-day summer program for blind children last week, nobody got hurt unless you count cramps from laughing too much.

The kids, meeting in the bunker at Anchorage's Kincaid Park, were supervised by a bevy of volunteers. The aim of the camp was to give visually impaired children, from 9 to 19 years old, a chance to participate in sports, like archery, where they are often left out.

"There's no reason that they can't do the things so many of these other kids can do," said Jenna Sticken, Camp Abilities co-director. "If they learn the proper techniques for things, there's a very short list of things they can't do."

The campers practiced tandem biking, took swimming lessons and learned a sport called goal ball, where team members slap the floor with their hands to signal to team members where to pass a ball.

So how does someone who can't see learn to shoot a bow and arrow?

Very carefully.

Across from a row of targets, volunteers from local archery groups took the hands of campers and guided them along the bows and strings. The kids held the bows, feeling, instead of seeing, their size and the pressure of the arrow against the string.

For the little ones, experienced archers helped them pull the arrow back. For the older ones, encouragement and left or right directions were all that was needed.

One at a time, arrows flew through the air, whomping into the targets. At least one camper hit a bull's-eye.

Melia Carinio, 17, has been coming to camp since she was 9. She's met some of her best friends at camp.

"I'm going to do this as long as I can and then I'm going to be a counselor," Carinio said.

Camp Abilities is a national program. Margaret Webber, executive director of Alpine Alternatives, a local program that helps people with all ranges of disabilities, brought the camp to Alaska about a decade ago. She said many of these kids have the chance only once a year to interact with other visually impaired kids.

Webber said some of the kids have never met other blind kids, other kids like them. They bond over their similarities and make long-lasting friends, she said.

Dalton Riser, 12, has spent four summers attending Camp Abilities. His mom, Erica Riser, brings him to camp every summer from Wasilla. He's learned things at camp that he wouldn't be able to learn anywhere else, she said.

"My son discovered he loves to climb rock walls," she said. "He fell in love with tandem bikes."


Find Kaylin Bettinger online at adn.com/contact/kbettinger or call her at 257-4349.

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