Think Out Loud

Camp Spark creates opportunities for kids and youth who are blind or visually impaired

By Allison Frost (OPB)
July 29, 2023 12:20 a.m. Updated: Aug. 7, 2023 7:06 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, July 31

Camp Spark program manager Kirsten French and guide dog Knightley run with tether alongside camper Tianna.

Camp Spark program manager Kirsten French and guide dog Knightley run with tether alongside camper Tianna.

Courtesy Kellen Ainley /NWABA


Youth who are blind or visually impaired face challenges if they want to play sports or even engage in physical activity their sighted peers may take for granted. The Northwest Association for Blind Athletes created Camp Spark to change that. Its free sports camps use games, physical activity, orientation and mobility to help campers develop skills — including leadership, independence, and advocacy. We talk with program manager Kirsten French and Athena Wooters, a Camp Spark counselor.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Young people who are blind or visually impaired can face challenges when they want to play sports or do other physical activities that their sighted peers may take for granted. The Northwest Association for Blind Athletes created Camp Spark to change this. Camp Spark offers free week-long sessions to help campers play sports while developing other skills like leadership, independence and self advocacy. Athena Wooters is a camper turned counselor. Kirsten French is a co-director of the camp and the program’s manager for Camp Spark and sports adaptations at the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Athena Wooters / Kirsten French: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Kirsten French, first. Why was Camp Spark launched?

French: Yes, this was our eighth summer of camp this past year and we started in 2016 because there was such a deep need for programs such as these. As you mentioned, campers and students who are blind and visually impaired are often excluded because of their vision and because of what the perception is – ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do this’ - from physical activities and other physical activity opportunities, including camp programs. So we started this as a way to help continue what is done in the schools – outside of the schools during summer – as a way to promote independence and quality of life while using sports and physical activity as that catalyst.

Miller: What do you think is behind that idea, ‘You can’t do this?’ What are the reasons that PE [Physical Education] teachers or coaches, people of various kinds, why might they say that?

French: There’s a pervasive idea of, if someone does something different than the way I do it, if they’re not doing it how I do it, then they can’t do it. There’s often a lack of knowledge. Even if someone has the desire to include someone who is different than them – in this case, has a visual impairment – they may not know how to do that. With blindness being the lowest incidence disability, there’s such a lack of those professional opportunities to know how to include people.

And overwhelmingly, there’s also this thought of, ‘Well, I don’t want someone to get hurt.’ I don’t want this person who’s blind, I don’t think they can do this, they’re going to get hurt, so I’d rather just exclude this person than stretching those boundaries and seeing what is possible.

Miller: And so even in a well meaning way, it ends up being a kind of paternalistic, ‘For your own sake, I want to keep you safe, so I will exclude you.’

French: Yes, very much so.

Miller: Athena Wooters, what drew you to Camp Spark as a camper? You were in middle school when you went for the first time?

Wooters: Yes, I was. And before Camp Spark, I had been doing a lot of sports and physical activities. My parents always pushed me to do those things. I am myself visually impaired. But after going to camp for a few years, I knew that I wanted to come back as a counselor. And when I had some time over the summer, I was excited to go this year.

Miller: What was your experience of camp like as a camper?

Wooters: It was overwhelmingly positive. The thing I remember most is all of these Paralympic athletes and very successful people with visual impairments who are on the staff at camp. And that’s another reason why I wanted to come back because I wanted to be that person for someone else.

Miller: Well, what did it mean to you to have these high level athletes around you?

Wooters: I have always been very self confident but it made me feel like I could do anything. Just being around all of those people who were so successful despite having varying levels of visual impairments of vision.

Miller: And that was enough for you to decide that after being a camper, you wanted to be a counselor?

Wooters: Yes. And I love working with kids and I knew that there was no camp that I would have a bigger impact than at Camp Spark, because I had that personal connection to it and because Camp Spark is so closely tailored to the needs of each athlete. It has this impact into these campers’ lives and also from year to year with sports.


Miller: Kirsten French, what’s an average day at camp like?

French: Our average day at camp looks very similar to other summer camp opportunities. As one of our campers described it this summer, he said, ‘It’s just like regular sports camp, but for blind people.’ Which were his exact words, but really was just that description of, this is an opportunity for campers to do what their peers are experiencing. In the morning, we do tandem biking and track and field. All of our sports are taught by professionals and pre-professionals in the field to bring in a lot of experience to ensure that these campers are getting the best instruction possible.

In the afternoon, we do swimming and Goalball, and Goalball is a team sport that’s specifically designed for people who are blind and visually impaired. And then campers have the opportunity in the afternoon to do a ‘choice activity,’ which was a sport or an independence skill area that they wanted to go into a little deeper, to receive some more specific instruction and to push themselves a little bit further to reach their goals.

In the evening, we do different team games, activities as a fun way to wrap up the day. And throughout the day, the campers are practicing navigating in a new space, learning different advocacy skills, practicing their independence and all over just creating a strong community with their peers in this space.

Miller: You noted that, as that camper said, it’s just like a sports camp that my peers might go to, but for people who are blind or visually impaired. How would it look different to sighted people than a sports camp that’s not for blind kids?

French: So for each of the sports we do, we use some different adaptations to ensure that everyone can access the activities. These adaptations also look different for different kids because we have different levels of vision across the board. At tandem biking, it’s tandem biking, so there is someone up front who is called the pilot or the captain and then the person in the back, the camper, is the stoker. So they’re providing all of the power for that tandem bike. At track and field, we may use a beeper or other sound source for the field sports so that campers have a target to aim for. We might use a visual target that is high contrast for someone to be able to see where they are going better.

At running, we use guide runners whether it is someone following a runner who’s holding a sound source such as bells or a beeper. Maybe they guide runners wearing something high contrast or maybe they’re holding a tether between the guide and the runner to be able to have some kinesthetic input when they’re running. Some runners also are comfortable running just following the lines because they’re high contrast enough. At swimming, we’ll use tappers for campers to know when they are at the end of the course to do a flip turn or to end.

And Goalball is specific for athletes who are blind and vision impaired, so it’s completely accessible where all athletes are wearing eye shades that block out all light and all vision. The court is tactile with string under tape so that all athletes know where they are on the court by feel and the ball is made accessible with bells inside. It’s about the size of a basketball, but it’s also heavier.

Miller: Athena, you’ve now been a counselor for two camps, now. Can you give us a sense for what you hear from your campers in terms of what this experience is like for them, and how it’s different from what they may be experiencing, say, in middle school gym class?

Wooters: So a common story for campers is they come to camp and they’re not sure if they’re going to be able to participate in activities because it’s their first time trying the activity or maybe they gave it a shot at PE, but it wasn’t adapted for them and they weren’t able to fully participate. And then a couple hours, a couple of days into camp, they’re so excited to be able to participate in these activities that are now accessible to them and they’re setting goals and trying to reach them in a way that they maybe haven’t done before. So all of these physical adaptations really make it possible for these campers who maybe outside of camp didn’t think of themselves as someone who could participate in sports, but are able to at camp and have all of these additional benefits that sports come with, that sense of independence, being able to learn a new skill to push past something difficult. And those are all skills that those campers will take into their lives and back home, potentially to their PE classes.

Miller: And that transformation that happens just within a couple of days?

Wooters:  Certainly. Both of my campers had that kind of experience, at least at the second session. They were both pretty vocal about being very hesitant to come to camp for the first time, being nervous to meet new people, nervous to participate in activities that they hadn’t done before. And then by the end of it, instead of doing two laps, that one camper thought was her max on the tandem, she was doing 50 with me because that was her goal. And instead of being able to run only one lap, my other camper was going back again and again trying to beat her 100 [meter] sprint time. So you just see the transformation even over a couple of days.

Miller: Kirsten, my understanding is that you lost your sight about two years ago, after you’d already been working for the Northwest Association for Blind Athletes, after you were already in this sphere. What kind of a community did you have sort of ready made when you got your diagnosis?

French: Correct. I lost my vision two years ago, right about the start of camp two years ago. And my experience with that was very different than other people because I came into this situation knowing what was possible, having been able to see what was possible with the campers that I was working with. And when the conversation around ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do this,’ that the world often and overwhelmingly tells people who are blind or visually impaired, I knew that that wasn’t true because I knew campers. I knew counselors who also were visually impaired, were also blind. And the same mentors that Athena talks about looking up to when she was a camper, I now got to look up to them even as a staff and to be able to know, ‘Yep, this is possible.’ [It] made that process look so different and to really be able to see these campers as mentors myself.

Miller: Before we go, I want to go back to this question of safety that you started with Kirsten, because I imagine that, I mean, people get injured all the time, whether they have 20/20 vision or are blind or anywhere in between, or have other issues. I mean, that’s just a part of having a human body. I’m curious how you handle it, how you push people when you feel like they need to be pushed and then sort of back off a little bit depending on their comfort level?

French: Yes, that’s something that’s so important to talk about because what we really like to talk about is everybody has a right to get hurt. And when you initially hear that, that sounds so scary or ‘I don’t want to cause people to get hurt.’ And that’s not what we’re doing in the least, but it’s that everybody has the right to try. And as you said, in the process, you might get a bump, you might get a scrape, you might get a blister. Some things happen just as we learn and it’s our reaction to those, that if someone is running, they’re running as hard as they can and they get some blisters from running. Great. We deal with those, we get them cleaned up ready to go and jump back out there, be able to have those conversations about, look what you were able to accomplish.

For some campers, this might be the first time that they’re really feeling their body getting sore because they’ve worked so hard –  ‘My legs hurt, my arms hurt,’ because we’ve been doing these sports and it’s a way to then change that conversation of, yes, this is what it’s doing, but isn’t it so cool that my body is able to do this? And I’m able to do more than I did before. What did you learn? In getting sore, what were you able to learn? I was able to do this and now I can jump back into doing this activity. I can find that I’m doing more than I was able to do before. Now that I am practicing the skill I can accomplish a higher goal. And that’s something that’s huge to be able to see campers grow throughout the years.

And I said some campers were very hesitant at the beginning and needed things to be broken down much smaller and made just as little bits and pieces to be able to the next year. They come back, they’re comfortable doing more, they’re now pushing themselves a little bit further. And so the further and further, to going up to a very competitive level.

Miller: Kirsten French and Athena Wooters, thanks very much.

French / Wooters: Thank you.

Miller: Kirsten French is the co-director of Camp Sparks, a part of Northwest Association for Blind Athletes. Athena Wooters is a Camp Spark counselor, a former camper.

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