In a quiet classroom at the Idaho Falls Activity Center on Monday, 8-year-old Mei Mei Hill plastered zebra-print sticky material, tie-dye duct tape and eyeball foam stickers onto her brand new cane.
“I like the eyeballs because they make it look sort of scary,” said Mei Mei, who lives in Pocatello.
Once her newly razzled and dazzled cane was complete, Mei Mei, along with the other campers in this year’s Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning summer program, practiced swinging, tapping and exploring the halls of the empty building with their brand new mobility tools.
That was a cane decorating activity on the first day of the two-week summer program designed for blind and visually impaired children. The program, in its second year, is run by the National Federation of the Blind. This year, six students are enrolled, up from four last year.
“(The camp) is important for the kids, just because of the socialization,” said Nancy Luth, who works with most of the children during the school year through the Gooding-based Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and Blind. “For blind students, there really aren’t many of them. To get them together in a group where they can talk about things that are important to them, and challenges they (share), that’s super important.”
The eastern Idaho camp started last summer when officials in the Snake River Valley Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind identified a need. The eastern Idaho camp followed the successful debut of a Boise camp the year prior, spokesman Sean Malone said.
“For a lot of these kids, by the time they’re in their teens or early 20s, they may be completely blind,” Malone said. “So this is confidence for them. They don’t feel so left out or behind because by the time they’re in their 20s, they can’t read regular print any more. When they finish high school, they’ll be a step ahead.”
Throughout the program, kids practice a variety of activities designed to help them in daily living. Those include reading and writing braille, using a cane and learning non-visual techniques such as pouring liquids into a cup or making cookies. Structured learning is coupled with field trips, including a trip to iJump trampoline park, miniature golf and a visit to a nearby candy shop.
Allison McCracken, 12, signed up for the camp with her brother, Ashton McCracken, 8, for the first time this year. Both live in Idaho Falls. Allison said she’s most looking forward to the group iJump outing. Ashton said he’s most excited for a self-defense activity on Wednesday, in which the campers will learn a series of self-defense techniques.
While those activities are fun, the daily braille reading is also helpful, Ashton said, because it gives him more opportunity to practice.
“Practicing helps,” he said. “[Because] braille is hard sometimes, I can’t (always) tell each letter apart.”
The camp is funded this year with money from the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired as well as a $1,000 grant from the Idaho National Laboratory. Money goes toward pay for a certified braille teacher, as well purchasing supplies — each camper receives a free cane and a free slate and stylus (a braille writing tool). Costs last year ran about $3,500, and this year, are expected to run slightly higher, to accommodate additional students.
Officials hope to see more students participate in coming years. They’re also looking into expanding the program to a third location in future years, which would likely be in northern Idaho.
“We know these students are out there,” Malone said. “Hopefully next year and as we continue to do this, we’ll get more and more of them to come.”
Mei Mei is a returning camper this year. She recalls her favorite activity last summer was visiting a fire station when the group took an outing to Idaho Falls Fire Department Station 3 and met firefighters. She said daily practice reading braille last summer has also helped her better learn the written language.
“More time to practice gave me more time to be a good reader,” she said. “It was easy at first, now, it’s getting a little harder, but after practicing, I’m doing great.”