There are times when certain stories immediately strike you as important and you want to share it with the world. In this case, the “world” may be a bit broad, but it’s definitely worth sharing, especially to fellow Long Islanders. I recently logging on to the Adelphi University website (my alma mater), and viewed a video about Camp Abilities, a week-long overnight camp program for children, ages 9 to 19, who are visually impaired that is held at Adelphi University in Garden City.The camp marks its sixth summer on Long Island on July 10th.
I learned from the video that this summer camp teaches children who are blind, visually impaired or deafblind how to play sports, skills that these children may not have learned otherwise, or realized that they can even do. Both compelling and heartwarming, I wanted to learn more about this program so I interviewed the Director of the program, Lisa Innella, and Assistant Director, Dr. Ellen Kowalski.
“I went to Adelphi myself, but they were the only university to take a chance on us that first year,” Innella says. After volunteering at Camp Abilities Brockport, the first location of Camp Abilities, Innella knew that she wanted to bring the program to Long Island. “The program originated in 1996 in Brockport, as an elective course that Dr. Kowalski was offering, I volunteered at the camp in the summer of 2008. By the summer of 2009, we were up and running at Adelphi,” Innella stated.
“I’ve been an educator at Adelphi for 25 years,” Kowalski added, “And there is a certain ‘caring’ about students’ educations as a whole at Adelphi. Even in terms of caring about the individual student here, there is a shared vision. I see this especially in my department, it’s more than just getting an ‘A’ on a paper. We’re a service department, and we care about servicing others.”
Innella continued, “Our mission is really to help and give opportunities to those that might not be made available to them otherwise.”
“It’s also to empower children, ” Kowalski added.
Specifically, the mission of Camp Abilities (CampAbilitiesLongIsland.org) is to bridge the gap between playing sports and leading a physical lifestyle with children who are visually impaired, and to reinforce the self confidence in these children that they can indeed master sports. Another vital part of the mission of their mission is to train undergraduate and graduate students how to teach adaptive physical education games and sports to their future students. Since Camp Abilities began in 1996, over 800 students have been trained in adapting games and sports for these children.
Innella went on, “There weren’t always opportunities for all children to get involved in sports.” Often, Innella and Kowalsi explained, that at Camp Abilities it is the child’s first true exposure to playing sports. Before Camp Abilities, some of the kids’ days in P.E. class included sitting on the sideline, or managing the equipment, instead of actually getting to play with their peers.
Kowalski continued, “Think about it, if you ask a 10 year old, an adult, even, if a person that is blind can play baseball, they’ll say no. But actually, we’re teaching kids [with visual impairments] that they can.
“A lot of teachers are afraid of liability and don’t want to take chances.That’s something that we need to break.”
Immediately tying into the mission, Kowalski explained, “With our counselors here, we see the immediate impact on future teachers and how they’ll be able to modify games in their classrooms.”
These games be “modified” for those who are visually impaired simply, by making them auditory or tactile. For example, kids who learn how to play “beep baseball,” and Innella and Kowalski were kind enough to demonstrate the game to me on a board. Modified from traditional baseball, there are two bases, first and second, each with their own different sound, or ‘beep.’ The batter, who knows the ball is approaching by a beeping noise through the ball, can hit the ball and run to first or second base. If they run to the base before a fielder gains possession of the ball, they’re safe. However, if they reach the base after a fielder has gained possession of the ball, they would be out. Also, many of the Camp Abilities campers have been recruited, or are future recruits, of the Long Island Bombers, a professional beep baseball team.
“It’s different for us at Camp Abilities than other P.E. teachers,” Innella explained. “Challenges don’t necessarily exist, it’s actually that teachers need to learn how to adapt games to make them auditory or tactile. I teach at New Hyde Park, and I show them how I teach my kids here at camp. It’s great to show kids that everyone can get involved and play, and that sports are for everyone.”
Other games taught at camp are goal ball, track and field, tandem biking, basketball, bocce and rollerblading.
Kowalski and Innella are lucky enough to see firsthand the change in children when they attend camp. “It’s instantaneous,” Kowalski smiled.
“It’s a drastic change,” Innella added. “Kids will come in shy, some never really having played sports. One camper on the first day cried for her parents and didn’t want to stay. By the last day, she didn’t want to leave! We always receive emails from parents after camp is over with positive feedback.”
There are many repeat campers, or, as they call it, “life-ers.” Also, many repeat campers are now C.I.T’s (counselor-in-training) and Counselors. Counselors are also undergraduate and graduate students from schools with adaptive physical education programs.
” We had to scrounge that first year for volunteers. Now we have a waiting list of counselors,” Innella shared. “For me, the first year, I busted my butt to get the camp going. It was like a second full time job.
“But, after the camp was set, and after seeing the kids’ reactions and enjoyment, it just made everything worth it. Every year, it’s always worth it,” she smiled.
“It’s the little things that make it worth it,” Kowalski added. “For example, a camper who never thought he was good at sports or thought he could do it, now says, ‘I’m an athlete.'”
On average the camp hosts 20 to 25 students per year, this year they are hosting 21 children. At the end of camp, children will go home with an assessment packet they can share with their physical education teachers at school, listing all of their acquired skills of the games and sports that they learned at Camp Abilities.
In addition, many Camp Abilities programs have been established in Saratoga, West Chester, Connecticut, Boston and in Ireland. The camp is need of funding. especially since the projected cost of operating the camp each summer is around $24,000.
“There were three fundraisers for the camp recently. Kohl’s Cares for Kids, for example, is amazing. We’ve recently had a bowl-a-thon and a comedy night,” Innella said. “For the first year of camp, I had to drive to Brockport to borrow all of the equipment for camp, bring it to Adelphi, and then drive it all back after camp was finished. We have a bit more than the first year, but we’re always looking for donations.”
Kowalski added, “We could always use tandem bikes and track and field equipment! We shoestring from year to year. Some equipment is also from the Commission for the Blind.”
Each year the camp helps more and more children realize that they can play sports and master physical education skills, just like any other child who may not have a visual impairment.
On July 16th the Camp Abilities counselors and kids will be in learning how to surf in Long Beach at “Surf for All” (http://www.surfforall.org/).
After meeting these two inspiring women and learning about their mission, I personally have never felt more of an ‘I can do it’ emotion. For these children who may have never really played sports to realize they can become athletes, who is to say there is anything that is holding you back from doing something?
You never know how much you can grow and change within a few days, as a Camp Abilities slogan says, “Believe you can achieve.”