New worldview: Camp Eureka! Encourages Blind Children to Explore Independence
By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian
June 20, 2006
From the Missoulian www.missoulian.com
Photo: Blake Edzek, 17, left, and fellow campers at Camp Eureka! are led by University of Montana botanist Peter Lesica, third from left, through a multi-sensory exploration of plant life at the Teller Wildlife Refuge on Monday afternoon.
CORVALLIS - When Geerat Vermeij was a boy, his teachers thought he was joking when he told them he wanted to be a scientist studying natural history when he grew up.
Expectations for the blind weren't that high back then.
Vermeij has since proved them wrong.
With an insatiable curiosity about the natural world and some help along the way from family, friends and his wife, Edith, Vermeij has traveled to the far corners of the earth to touch, smell, taste and listen his way into a better understanding of his surroundings.
Vermeij didn't let the fact that he was blind get in the way of him becoming a professor of marine ecology and paleoecology at the University of California in Davis. And he certainly didn't let it didn't stop him from publishing more than 175 scientific papers and five books.
Along the way, Vermeij learned that to succeed, the blind can't settle for average.
“The trouble is you can't be just as good,” Vermeij said. “You have to be better and be willing to work hard to achieve the same amount of success.”
For 11 Montana youngsters - each with their own visual impairment - Vermeij will become a role model at this week's Camp Eureka! at the Teller Wildlife Refuge in Corvallis.
“I may not be terribly good at it,” Vermeij said, while sitting in the shade under a large willow tree. “My blindness isn't at the center of my world.”
That message may be the most important one the youngsters hear during the weeklong natural history camp, said president of the Montana Association for the Blind, Dan Burke.
Too often, society's expectations of the blind aren't high.
“Unfortunately, most blind people are unemployed and all they have to do is deposit the monthly check,” Burke said. “Society's message is, ‘We can take care of all that for you.' That's the wrong message.”
For a time, the youngsters at Camp Eureka! have a chance to hear that there are no limits.
“They get to hang out with blind people,” Burke said. “They learn it's OK to be blind.”
For instance, one of the requirements of the camp is the youngsters need to become proficient with their canes.
“We require them to carry their canes. When some dropped them last year, we invented a song, ‘Not Going to Drop My Cane by the Riverside,' to encourage them to keep it with them at all times,” Burke said. “At first, some see it as a sign of infirmity, or being different.
“We want them to think of their canes in a different way,” he said. “We want them to think of their canes as part of their path to independence.”
In Montana, kids living with a visual impairment are often isolated. Their teachers aren't always prepared to teach the blind. And it can be a rare thing to actually sit down and talk with someone who truly understands what it means not to be able to see.
Beth Underwood wants these youngsters to know what it feels like to be on level ground with their peers.
Underwood is the driving force behind the camp, now in its second year. She worked as an environmental education specialist for 16 years at the National Bison Range and the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge before a bout with glaucoma changed her life.
After learning Braille, getting a teaching certificate and tutoring a blind preschooler, Underwood returned to what she knew best to create the summertime nature camp for blind children.
Her goal - along with a cadre of dedicated teachers and mentors - was to create a camp where blind kids would become empowered, more independent and gain a new confidence about science.
It worked. This year, all but one of last season's campers returned excited and ready for another week of learning about nature.
The camp is a partnership between the Montana Conservation Science Institute, the National Federation of the Blind and Montana Association for the Blind.
“We want these kids to get out and do mud-and-boots exploration,” Underwood said. “We want them to begin to understand the larger relationships occurring all around them in the natural world.
“To be able to do that, they have to develop observational skills using all of their senses,” she said.
That's not an easy task, Vermeij said. In today's world, not many take the time to truly explore and observe the natural world.
“That's one of the messages I hope to give,” he said. “If you really want to understand the nature, you have to learn to be a good observer. ... That's unpopular in our society where we all want center stage.”
People always like to be talking and that isn't terribly conducive to studying nature, he said. “Observation is a skill, rather than a born ability. It has to be honed.”