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Church provides summer camp experience for blind, deaf adults

 


Church provides summer camp experience for blind, deaf adults

June 23, 2005

By John Gordon*

WEST RIVER, Md. (UMNS)—At first glance, it looks no different than any other summer camp, with boat rides, a refreshing dip in the pool, and challenges such as climbing a wooden wall or making a precipitous 50-foot drop on a rope swing.

But a closer look shows these are special campers at the United Methodist Church’s West River Center near Annapolis. They are deaf and blind adults, with volunteers helping them experience the sights and sounds others take for granted.

Forty campers from across the United States attended this year’s program, held in the second week of June. The youngest were in their 20s. The oldest was 75.

“There are so many different things to do here. And I can do anything I want to,” said Angela Howell, 31, of Waldorf, Md. 

Howell began losing her hearing when she was a teenager and later lost her sight.

At camp, she enjoyed swimming with her 4-year-old son, Joseph. Volunteer Lauren Kilbourn, a seminary student at Duke Divinity School, served as her eyes and ears during the weeklong camp.

“They help me do whatever I want,” Howell said. “It doesn’t matter that I can’t see or I can’t walk very well.”

The Deaf-Blind Camp has held annual sessions for the last eight years. It originated from an idea by the Rev. Peggy Johnson, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore.

“The experience of a dual-sensory loss is one of isolation—not only with your contact with things, but more importantly your contact with people,” Johnson said.

“Our goal is to spread the love of God to people that don’t have an opportunity to be involved in the mainstream ministry of an organized church.”

The camp includes a daily religious service led by deaf-blind campers and volunteers.  Then the schedule is filled with recreational offerings ranging from hayrides to country dancing to museum trips.

A popular activity is a motorcycle ride led by bikers from the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association.

“I thought it was awesome,” said John Holcomb, a 22-year-old camper from Bensalem, Pa.

“You get the smell of the gas. You get the feel of the engine. You get to smell the flowers if you’re passing those,” Holcomb said. “And I don’t get that opportunity very often.”

Kim Powers-Smith of Austin, Texas, was the first camper to ride the Giant Swing.  Supported by a harness and rope, she was hoisted 50 feet into the air before being released.

“I was flying,” Powers-Smith said. “It was just such a challenge—much more speed than skydiving.”

Harold Hayes of Knoxville, Tenn., enjoyed a barge ride on the West River, which runs alongside the campgrounds.

“I can feel the waves of the water and the sun shining down,” he said, while on the ride. “It feels really good.”

The camp depends on nearly 100 volunteers known as SSPs, or Support Service Providers, to guide the campers. Many of the campers lost their hearing and sight to Usher syndrome, an incurable, genetic disease. 

“I want people to know that you don’t have to wait for a cure, you can live your life now,” said Aniko Kuschatka, 39, of Walla Walla, Wash. She originally came to West River as a camper and now volunteers as program coordinator and teaches arts and crafts.

“This camp is important to give them hope,” she said. “It keeps them encouraged.”

Sandra Ferguson, associate council director for the United Methodist Church’s Baltimore-Washington Conference, said the needs of the deaf-blind are often ignored in society.
 
“It’s responding to a group of people that, in many cases, are totally disenfranchised, almost invisible at times,” she said. “People come from all walks of life with many, many different needs, and we try to respond with dignity.”

And the West River experience gave camper Howell a chance to enjoy, for at least a week, life without limits.

“In the outside world, a lot of people aren’t as accepting,” she said. “So here, everybody just likes me for who I am. Nobody really stares at me or thinks I shouldn’t be doing that.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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