By Wendy Rogers.
Adapted from: Adventist News Network (September 21, 2004)
With just one look at Ashley, you see joy in her expression. Ashley is with her friends--smiling, laughing, and together they share their experiences of horseback riding, swimming, water skiing, biking and meeting new friends. Ashley, who has attended Christian Record Service's (CRS) National Camps For Blind Children/Adults (NCBC) for years, has learned to see things a little differently than most.
"I like riding horses but I like tubing. That's gotta be my favorite thing--that and jet skiing," she says.
Brady is a 16-year-old young man who is also blind. He has attended Sea-Venture camp, one of the 26 blind camps offered by NCBC in the United States and Canada. Brady apologized for missing the phone call. "I've been busy with school and activities. I was out horseback riding," he said enthusiastically.
Brady talks about his experience at camp, which he's attended for four years. "Other visually impaired people are doing things with their life and it's good to see that, to encourage people," says the high school junior who attends The Oklahoma School For the Blind. He's been a counselor-in-training for two summer camps, at the request of Kevin Hargett, a camp coordinator for CRS who is in charge of the Sea-Venture camp in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"Most people have the outlook on the blind and visually-impaired as not being able to do things with their lives," Brady says. "For me, when I went there [to the camp], I thought, 'I can do something. I can do something with my life.' It also drew me closer to Jesus."
Eric, blind for as long as he can remember, is another veteran Sea-Venture camper, and was a counselor this summer. "I do very well with blind people. I just look at them like I am. Whatever I watch out for, I'm going to watch out for them," he says.
Hargett tells of a blind man in his early twenties. "I never saw him smile ... We were going surfing because the local surfing organization comes out two nights and teaches the campers how to ride surf boards. He was extremely worried about this. It just added to the frown on his face. The organizer invited him to come out, talked him into it. He really worked him through it. Got him out there and on the board. And I saw nothing but smiles and teeth. It's such a neat experience to see that transformation."
He adds, "But it goes way beyond that. There are all different kinds of venues like that that we do, and it's just a tool that allows us to share Jesus Christ, because of our morning and evening programs."
Hargett says that at the end of the week, after the activities are over, campers are given the opportunity to accept Jesus. "I'm always at awe at how many rededicate their life, how many accept Christ for the first time."
Most of the campers are not Adventist church members, Hargett explains, and when those who have made a decision to accept Jesus return to their homes, "there are those at home that aren't going to be happy with them. There's always the fear of abandonment. So it's very difficult for them to make that decision."
There's also the challenge of nurturing these blind people who have made a decision. "We need the support of our [church] members," Hargett says. "We need to have good follow-up from local churches."
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of concern is just getting blind people to church, since they can't get there on their own. "Oftentimes it's hard for a blind person to attend church because nobody will go get them," says Dan Miller, director of field services for CRS and national director of NCBC.
Jere Wallack, a pastor who served as chaplain for one of the winter blind camps in Winter Park, Colorado, in February this year, says he expected adventuresome young people, which they were. But he also expected helplessness. "It wasn't that at all," he says. "They were upbeat, optimistic, excited, and always ready to try a new adventure."
The group, which consisted of 14 to 30-year-olds, went downhill and cross-country skiing, tubing and snowmobiling in the world's number one handicapped ski area. Blind winter enthusiasts were aided by resort staff for downhill skiing; volunteers from Denver's Mile-Hi Snowmobile Club helped out with that sport; while camp volunteers spent time teaching blind campers other activities.
"Several were repeats," Wallack says. "None complained about blindness. Several called blindness a blessing."
As chaplain, Wallack's duties included giving a brief morning and evening devotional talk each day. His talks were centered around the theme, "Yea God!"
"You'd hear it on the ski slopes--'Yea God!'" he says. "It was incredible."
Bryan and Mindy Schwarz have been in charge of the Winter Park blind camp for years. Mindy explains that many blind people are treated differently at home and in public, but they find a common denominator at camp with blind peers. "They are completely accepted for who they are and are given the opportunity to do stuff that most of us sighted people wouldn't give them the opportunity to even attempt. When they get to camp, not only will they attempt it, they will generally succeed," she says.
It's not just about the campers. According to Bryan, the fulfillment the volunteers get keeps them coming back. "It's a big part of the joy and happiness that Mindy and I experience in day-to-day life. I feel like we get more out of what we put into the program. Most volunteers come out of the camp with the same feeling," he says. When people thank him for his help, "It's almost like somebody thanking you for winning the lottery. It doesn't make sense for what you get out of it," he explains.
National Camps For Blind Children/Adults, which began in 1967, is just a small part of what Christian Record Services offers. Each year about 100,000 blind people receive some form of help from Christian Record. They provide a variety of free services for the blind, including subscription magazines, books, study Bibles and scholarship assistance. Materials are sent around the world, to some 75 countries. CRS also operates a Bible school.
The goal for Christian Record Services is to reach every blind or visually impaired person in North America with publications and services. Last year Ashley was presented with a Bible in Braille during a church service. She read the scripture for the day from it.
Christian Record Services, which began in 1899, has area representatives all over the United States and Canada who become acquainted with blind people in their regions, enroll them in CRS's reading services, and invite them to attend a camp. They also liaison with area businesses and organizations to raise funds for these services, and they educate the public on the challenges that blind people face.
"This is an extremely important part of what we do because they're seeking the blind all the time--not only to enroll children in camps, but to visit them in their homes, extend information to them, pray for them, sometimes even help them in personal ways," says Jerry Stevens, editor/director of CRS's reading services.
"Our motto is 'We help the blind see Jesus.' That's our whole reason for existence," Stevens says.
Blind Bikers Across America, another program by CRS, has been in existence for three or four years, says Stevens. Blind bikers ride on tandem bicycles with a sighted driver. In June this year, they rode from near Nashville, Tennessee to Hellen Keller's birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a total of some 130 miles. Keller was a deaf and blind woman born in 1880 who made a great impression worldwide as she labored to promote civil rights, human dignity, women's suffrage, world peace, and aided others with disabilities.
"Specialty camps are kind of a thing for the day. How often do they get to go on a tandem bike?" Stevens says.
For Ashley, Brady and Eric, it's back to riding horses, tubing, socializing with old friends, and making new ones. And for Christian Record Services, whether it's on the slopes, on the water, or in Braille, it's all about introducing the blind to Christ.