Classroom of the Week: Camp VISION sees nothing but possibilities for visually impaired youths

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PITTSFIELD — You don't have to see to believe and feel the transformative power of Camp VISION.

The 17-year running program began as a summer camp program serving Visually Impaired Students In Our Neighborhoods. Camp VISION's programming is now offered year-round in tandem with learning and social groups organized with founding member and city educator for the vision impaired, Lynn Shortis, along with dedicated parents and colleagues.

Last Friday, she partnered with STRIDE Adaptive Sports, a volunteer nonprofit organization to support adaptive sports and recreation opportunities for people with various disabilities, to take 12 students on their first ski trip.

"It's a great opportunity for my students," said Shortis, who coordinated the ski program for students in grade 3-9.

The students' first lesson, held a Jiminy Peak, was led with the help of Kim Seevers, a Team USA alpine ski guide and 2014 paralympian who has participated in the Sochi and PyeongChang Winter Games.

"A program like Lynn's that gets children with low vision out and about exploring the world is so valuable," Seevers said.

Some of Shortis' students may be able to see far distances with limited range, while others have little to no visual range, which, at times, can make circumstances feel a little uncertain. But, Camp VISION members are taught to work together and support each other in conquering the unknown.

"I've learned how just because you can't see doesn't mean we can't do great things," said Williams Elementary School third-grader, Gabbi Ott.

During their trip, each student had a STRIDE guide with them to help the kids and teens every step of the way.

The first challenge was adapting to the feel of ski boots.

"It's like having to wear high heels that are really heavy," Ott said.

Next, there was the matter of clipping into to skis, and gliding on the terrain, which was more wet and slushy versus firm and smooth that day.

"I kept falling and falling every time," said another Williams third-grader, Xzavier Markham.

"Me, too," said his classmate, Brooke Dobert. "But I kept going."

And that went for the rest of the group too.

Even fourth-grader Kyron Ashley, who said, "I am actually very scared of heights."

Nevertheless, he persisted through the lesson, and up the ski lift, with the cheering on of a red clown-nose-wearing instructor.

"So, I faced my fear," said Ashley, who said it felt, "great."

"It was pretty fun to go down the ski slopes," said fifth-grader Gabe Dahari, who, over the course of two-and-a-half hours, mastered the sport enough to ski down an intermediate slope.

Isabella Vera, a fourth-grader at Lee Elementary School who has no vision described an equally exciting experience. "I can feel the adrenaline when I am on the chairlift. I loved talking with the headset. I wish I could do it again."

For people who can't see but can hear, a helmet-based wireless intercom system can be used so the visually-impaired skier can move independently, with support from directions given to them by their guides.

"You can work together, and sometimes, if you fall, you have to get right back up and keep going," Ashley said.

In a word, Williams Elementary third-grader Juliana McGovern called her Camp VISION experience, "amazing."

Mary Ellen Whitney, CEO and founder of STRIDE Adaptive Sports credited Shortis for her relentless pursuit of fun, educational experiences for her students. "Lynn pours blood sweat, tears and love into everything she does to make life better and equal for her students," Whitney said.

Beyond the field trips — which have included camping, whitewater rafting, and many museums — Shortis also gathers students in like-age lunch groups at Williams Elementary twice a week, where kids can talk about safety strategies or social issues; learn Braille and hatch ideas for other outings and programs.

"I've seen a lot of friendships developing over the years," Shortis said.

"It's good to have someone you know," said Markham.

"And trust," Dobert said.

Asked about their futures, Markham and Dobert both aspire to be video game designers for the Japanese company, Game Freak, though they'd prefer to work in different departments.

"We spend enough time together," Dobert said.

Ashley said he'd like to continue to develop his skills as a writer. "I've already written a book. It's about superhero vegetables," he said.

McGovern said she wants to be "an eye doctor or a real doctor," aspiring to help others in any way she can.

Ott, is an aspiring Renaissance woman, with interests in becoming a "chef, doctor, veterinarian or maybe book writer."

Those Camp VISION members who don't go to Williams Elementary — which include Vera; Pittsfield High School freshman Payton Ebling; Herberg Middle School seventh-graders Colin and Bryan McKinney; and Crosby Elementary School fourth-grader, Logan Williams, and third-grader, Ethan Wright — have equally high ambitions and ranging interests, Shortis said.

"It's a very talented group," said Markham.

McGovern nodded, with a big approving smile. "I'm very proud of it."


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