I’m having SUCH a hard time deciding how to begin and then ultimately write this post. It is so important to me on so many levels. I understand that this is a PHOTO blog and, as such, most readers don’t actually read most of what I write…they look at the pictures. And that is how it is supposed to be. It challenges me to tell my stories and share my experiences in and around Saratoga with photos, and that is FUN for me.
This time, however, I am struggling with mixed feelings about this article. I want to share with you, my readers/viewers, every tiny detail, fact and emotion associated with this outstanding camp but: a) it will turn into a short novel and even I wouldn’t want to read that much, b) while I want to educate everyone on the importance of this life-changing week, it’s not in my nature to write what would equate to a press release or even a news article. I write based on my feelings, passions and emotions, and the one comment I get time and again from people who know me and actually read what I write here is that I write in exactly the same manner that I sound if you are talking to me directly. And that tends to border on the wildly enthusiastic, highly excitable, and even sentimental impressions I have of all that is going on around me.
So I’m going to wing this one. I will try to give you as much detail as possible in as few words as possible (but it may still be lengthy) but, more importantly, I want to share with you the overall feeling of this one week camp held Aug. 9-15, at Skidmore College. Hopefully, you will hang in there and keep reading until the end. My hope is that, if you do, you will feel as inspired by all of this as I am.
Let me just say right now, however, that I did NOT take all of these photos. Not by a long shot. There were 3 of us there as often as possible, trying to capture all the moments to share with the parents on a daily basis. My fellow photographers were Barbara Tyler and Brendan O’Donnell. I’m just going to randomly share the photos in no particular order throughout this post.
OK…already, I’ve been too wordy. Still with me? 🙂
I became involved in Camp Abilities, which is a service project of the Saratoga Lions Club, last year at the encouragement of a friend who thought my love for both writing and photography might be beneficial to the camp. I helped out where I could as someone so new to the scene, and eventually, as a result of all that I experienced during that one hectic and wonderful week, I decided to join the Saratoga Lions. Best decision I have ever made! Such a great group of people…so committed and so passionate. I am proud to be a member, and super proud to be a part of this camp.
Camp Abilities Saratoga is, as I just mentioned, a one week sports camp for children who are blind, visually impaired, or deaf blind. It was started by Lauren Lieberman, PhD, at SUNY Brockport in 1996, and there are now camps throughout the world.
The purpose of the camp is to educate and empower these children and teens, and teach them that their vision loss is not, and should not, be a limiting factor in sports, or really in any aspect of their lives. Our specialists have degrees in Adaptive PE, and many of our counselors are educators, but they all have a full day of training before camp to work with the sensory impaired, and work one on one with the campers throughout the week.
Another purpose is to help arm these campers (and their parents) with the knowledge, information and confidence necessary to take back to their schools, and educate physical education programs as to the modifications and adaptations that can be adopted to allow them to perform in sports like their sighted peers. SEVEN returning campers from last year had gone on to join their schools’ sports teams or Special Olympics teams…that is what it’s all about and we could not have been happier to hear this news.
The camp is free to our campers (and we had 25 this year). This is made possible by a TON of fundraising, and through our generous and supportive donors and sponsors. We could not do this without a lot of help from the kind souls and wonderful, generous hearts who help us out to such a great extent.
So those are the facts. If you want to learn more, head to http://campabilitiessaratoga.org/ or our FB page at https://www.facebook.com/CampAbilitiesSaratoga. To find out about some of our impressions and thoughts about camp, keep reading!
Now I will move on to my impressions and my feelings as I helped out all week, as well as those of our Camp Director, Tiffany Mitrakos; our Board President, Joanne Sole; and one of my fellow photographers, Barbara Tyler.
The campers had opportunities to participate in Beep Ball (where the ball actually makes a sound to help them locate it when they are up to bat or fielding, Judo, Goal Ball, Tandem Biking, Track, Equestrian, Ice Skating, Swimming, Paddle Boarding, Bowling and Duathlon. Additionally, we had a dance party the first night, and a great picnic/talent show on the final night.
I personally was thrilled (but no longer astonished, as the same thing happened last year) to see the confidence levels climb as the week progressed. Campers who seemed a little bit quiet or shy the first night at our dance party were excelling at sports they had never tried before, or just improving on ones that they had. It was incredible to witness. And they appeared fearless…and eager to experience each new activity.
Another thing that really impressed me was how quickly everyone bonded. The counselors developed immediate bonds with their campers, and with each other. Most of the campers already knew each other from previous camps and programs, but there were definite individual friendships evident, in addition to the general sense of “oneness” of the entire group. Everyone helped everyone else. Everyone supported and cheered for everyone else.
And the talent show TOTALLY did me in. I alternated between clapping and cheering, to filling up with tears of pride and happiness as I witnessed these talented kids get up in front of everyone and just put it all out there. The dancing, singing, stunts, jokes, etc., were all done with such passion and exuberance. One little girl, Mary, stood in front of the crowd and momentarily froze when it was her turn. She put her fingers over her mouth and whispered that she didn’t think she could do this (she was going to dance to Taylor Swift). Before her counselor could even get up there to help her out by being her backup dancer, the music came on and it was like a switch flipped. Mary broke into the most uninhibited, enthusiastic and wild dance I’ve ever seen. She was pure joy. It was beautiful.
Our very dedicated and talented Camp Director, Tiffany Mitrakos (pictured in blue below), told me that one of her favorite points was a comment that she had heard where “one of our athletes said that he loved that our camp is intense, that we don’t baby them, that we push them to achieve at their highest level.”
One highlighted moment for Tiffany was when another camper, Chris, presented her with a check for $860 to Camp Abilities that he had raised on his own through bottle/can returns all year, and had kept a secret from her.
Tiffany also commented, “Another moment that sticks out in my mind is at opening ceremonies, when I asked how many people joined an after school or community sport after attending camp last year, seven athletes stood up! This is why I do what I do.”
Camp Abilities Board President, Joanne Sole, had several comments, the first of which noted that this camp is life-changing for everyone involved: participants, specialists and volunteers. She also recalls specific moments where campers helped other campers, i.e., “Paula offering to be Jacob’s partner in Judo as he was not wanting to be touched or pinned by anyone. He agreed and ended up with a big smile on his face.” This is the stuff that really matters!
Joanne’s dedication as Board President is based on the desire to continue “helping this population experience sporting events and succeed to allow their entrance into the sighted sports world.” One of her standout moments was watching an athlete receive an award and having her turn to her counselor and hug her with all her might.
Barbara Tyler, who coordinated the efforts of all three photographers, summed it up by saying, “They arrive as campers, but leave as friends.” She went on to recall some specific moments that stuck in her own mind during the week. “Walking to an event goes from one mass of kids/counselors to many groupings of 2 and 3…Counselors helping kids that were not their camper for the week…The sense of pride in the counselors’ faces as they watched the kids during the talent show.”
Barb was also responsible for all of the group photos throughout the week, and she enjoyed seeing all of the interactions between campers and counselors. “There was always a lot happening when we stuck the whole group together for a photo. Emily and Nora giving each other rabbit ears during group photos. Chris tickling and poking Paula. Alex hugging Shake and Bake. Mary and Naharie joking together.”
Well, I WARNED you that this would be lengthy and I am sure there is plenty that I could have left out but, in all honesty, I didn’t want to. This post took me forever to put together, but it is too important to too many people and, if even one person is affected by what I have written, or one more camper finds his/her way to us next year because of this, or we find one more donor or volunteer, then it was worth the effort. There is so much good going on here. And these wonderful children leave with so much…as does every single person involved.
It’s pretty amazing.
(And, again, in case you missed it earlier, these are not all my photos. They were also taken by Barbara Tyler and Brendan O’Donnell.)