Happy summer, Brookwood! I love the exhilaration of getting on a plane and embarking on a new adventure. You would think that after my history of international travel I would be a little more confident with my packing efforts, but I let out an audible sigh of relief when the luggage scale teetered and settled on exactly 50 pounds, not an ounce under or over. Phew! My luggage, though regulation weight, drew some attention as a cacophony of bell rings, rain stick tinkles, and swooshing shakers peeped out the cracks of the zipper. I am going to volunteer at the Belize Council of Visual Impairment for the week at their summer camp for children who are blind and low vision and am loaded down with sensory materials!
As I sat on the plane questions filtered through my head- Do the campers know braille? What adaptive equipment do they use to aid with mobility? Can some of the campers see shadows or light or are they completely blind? How do they use other senses to compensate? What are the children’s individual strengths and talents? I’ll let you know the answers to these questions and more as my adventure unfolds. If you have any wonderings about blind culture, pop a question in the comment section.
During the rest of the plane ride I practiced the braille alphabet. For those of you who don’t know, braille is a tactile communication system of raised dots that people who are blind or have low vision use to read and write. It is a code, not a language, that is structured around braille cells. A full braille cell consists of 6 dots arranged in 2 parallel rows each having 3 dots. The dot positions are identified by numbers 1-6. Letters are created by making different dot combinations within the cell.
Empty Braille Cell: Full Braille Cell Braille Dot Positions
These are the basics! I’ll let you know when I learn about numbers, punctuation and other more advanced features. I’ll also share some helpful patterns that are contained within the alphabet that makes learning the braille letters a bit easier. Do you notice any patterns? Hint: Look at A-J as a group of letters and compare with other rows. Fun fact- The letter ‘W’ was not included in the traditional braille alphabet since it originated in France and there was no W so it does not follow the pattern!
Belize is the little yellow country on this map of Central America, just below Mexico. I was curious about potential communication hurdles, but so far everyone speaks English and I actually haven’t heard any Spanish yet. The people have been very friendly and welcoming.
This morning we attended a morning sermon that focused on staying positive and having hope despite challenging life circumstances. One of the messages was for everyone, despite their own limitations, to be an encourager and build someone else up. He then talked about the difference between visual sight using your eyes and spiritual sight which is felt through your heart and mind.
Uno is a game of colors and numbers that transcends culture and abilities and is one my favorites to bring along when I travel. This afternoon I taught a group of children how to play using braille printed cards. The first letter of the color and the number are printed as raised braille dots in the corners of the cards. The kids had so much fun and met with great success as they expertly relied on their sense of touch. This became a nightly tradition throughout the week as our group expanded and I had more excited requests, “Miss Sarah, we play Uno?!” They erupted into laughter every time a skip, reverse or draw card was picked from the deck and they got to use it on a friend. I also brought plastic braille playing cards so we could play Go Fish and other classic games. Play- a universal part of childhood!
Sunday is a less structured day and many of the kids are playing on their devices- some children have low vision and are not totally blind. They have special settings and fonts on their phones and tablets which make it easier to see. They also have audio features that speak text to them. The children love music (like most of you!) and have pop songs blaring from their iPods. I’ve heard a lot of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and even Baby Shark!
This morning the campers had mobility and orientation class. Most of the children have been blind since birth and use collapsible canes to navigate around. Today’s teaching tip was to remind the children to swipe their cane in broad strokes from left to right and not to tap their canes. They are working on learning this new habit with allows them to identify obstacles from further away and make adjustments.
For the first half of the drill the campers held a guardian or volunteer’s arm in what they call a ‘C’ cuff and then the campers explored on their own. To practice mobility skills all 25 children roamed around a big room and tried to go around furniture, people and other obstacles. The setting was deliberately congested since life is busy and they will experience chaos and crowds out in the real world. Camp is situated on an old army barrack and has very uneven terrain with narrow sidewalks, posts and grates Independence is very important to the campers and they do an impressive job getting around.
Then we had our academic part of the day where children study reading, writing, math and technology. I am working with 4 year old twins who just finished preschool. Victoria is completely blind in one eye and has lower vision in the other eye. Since she is able to partially see she is not learning braille and I practiced letter recognition and letter writing with her. We also worked on counting and number recognition. Victoria loved to draw so she created pictures and labeled some of the objects with letters. They had fun building letters and numbers out of play dough like some of the younger kids at Brookwood do.
There are very few teaching materials here- I was given 2 pencils and lined paper for full days with young children, but we got creative and had a lot of fun. Her twin brother, Austin, was very busy and liked to move. He was a big Superman fan and his favorite activity was to stand on the chair and shoot a certain number of webs from his hands as he counted! We also did shuttle runs for him to go find certain letter cards that we made.
The only braille teaching materials for the really young children were these alphabet cards that were made with card stock and a glue gun. Although they had raised dots the quality was not good and by the end of the week the dots were rubbing off. So, I thought it would be a fun design challenge for us at Brookwood to create some new tactile alphabet/number learning materials for them. We can even 3D print some of our solutions. I can’t wait to hear your creative ideas!
Here is another challenge for you-the campers love playing Bingo and Chalupa, which is a bingo type game with pictures from Mexican culture. Although the kids enjoy playing the games they require full volunteer help since they can not see the boards or the pictures. I think we can design and engineer some versions of games that are more tactile and would give the campers more independence. Are you interested in helping?
A woman referred to as “Auntie Katie” comes to camp to teach tactile art classes. Using different textured materials, such as pipe cleaners, cotton balls, foam, sequins and wood sticks the kids made little sculptures. At first they had free exploration and then they were challenged to construct a sculpture that could stand on its own. They made birds, snowmen, skiers, snakes and lots of other clever things. All children, whether they can see or not, can participate in art and share their creativity with the world!
Argh, Mateys! All of the classes are held in a building called The Angry Pirate, which I thought was a pretty funny name!
Today was a special field trip! The campers took a bus and a ferry boat over to Goff’s Caye, a small island in Belize. They loved the vibration and sensation of being on the boat. There were many times where I caught myself wanting to say look how beautiful the clouds are or how blue the water is. We rely so much on our sense of vision. However, the campers rely on their other senses and they loved the cool sea breezes and occasional wave splashes. These children loved to swim and spent all day playing at the sand bar, floating on rafts, burying me in sand up to my neck and playing many games of Marco Polo, which was their favorite. I smiled as I watched blind children play a game that requires no sight and depends on hearing and touch.
They also loved spraying each other with super soakers! They relied on their sense of hearing to figure out where to aim.
Austin and I played lots of rounds of shark attack- he got me
Victoria and I practiced letter writing in the wet sand and waited for the waves to crash down and erase our words. We had a BBQ on the beach, took an island walk and lounged in the water until it was time to head back.
After dinner we popped popcorn and watched the movie Maleficent. Since movies are so visual I wondered how enjoyable this experience was going to be for the campers. They loved it and completely understood the storyline. Sometimes when one sense is reduced others are super strong to compensate and these children didn’t miss a line of dialogue or a laugh.
Maeve and Tessa Gaddipati and their mom, Sarah, arrived to camp today! For families who don’t know, Tessa is going into 5th grade at Brookwood and Maeve just graduated from 8th Grade at Brookwood and is heading to Pingree. They are going to be volunteering for the rest of the week. They brought markers, crayons, modeling foam and other supplies for our work sessions, which is going to make work sessions a lot easier! Sarah spent a lot of time talking and connecting with the camp directors, staff and families of the campers so we could learn as much as we could about the organization and the best ways to contribute in the years to come. Maeve and Tessa were a huge help with Austin and Victoria and practiced some reading and writing activities with them. Here are some of their reflections:
Tessa’s Thoughts: In Belize, the experience I had helping at the BCVI camp for blind children was very rewarding and wonderful. I spent a lot of my time with courageous, independent, hilarious, and loving children. Four year old Joannie touched my heart. We really bonded! Joannie was always thrilled to feel her way through the letters in the ABC blocks and stack her way up to make a big tower cake. She put her hands on the tower to see how high it is and the taller it got the more excited she became. Another person I spent time with was a girl named Courtney, who is 18 years and old going into college. Courtney loves music and has been playing the piano by ear for 12 years. Whenever I would swing open the doors and walk into camp I’d see Courtney with her headphones on listening music. During camp we had a karaoke night for the kids to let them get up there and sing or dance their hearts out. I was impressed to see brave and strong kids sing for the first time ever on a stage in front of the whole camp. Their voices were so beautiful, following the music. Since the start of camp I’ve noticed that once a senses is missing there other senses take over. They know when something is wrong by using their other senses like touch, smell, and hearing. The time I spent with these impressive kids has been a wonderful experience for me. We hope to keep in touch over the school year and can’t wait until next time.
Joannie always wanted to know where her buddy Tessa was!
Maeve’s Thoughts: In my time at BCVI’s camp for blind children, I loved how determined independent, kind and brave the kids are. I learned about the importance of family in their lives by this unique program that included them to help them learn Braille and become more independent. During the few days in Belize, we did many activities like sculpting, playing Braille “UNO,” karaoke and teaching them ukulele. Through these activities, I learned more about them and soon became close to them.
One of the blind kids I met and immediately became friends with was named Courtney. Courtney was born prematurely and became blind because her eyes weren’t fully developed. Courtney is 18 years old and is very kind and outgoing but her favorite thing to do is music. She can identify chords by ear and is never afraid to stand up and sing. Whenever we come into the building we usually see Courtney and her headphones hooked up to her computer and listening to music. Meeting Courtney really made me instantly feel comfortable being around blind children. She made me feel like I was around a person who can see. Meeting Courtney also gave me a chance to realize that anyone can do anything even if you are blind. Courtney graduated from high school with a 3.29 GPA doing the same exact work that people who aren’t impaired do.
Another child that I met was Gabriel who is 12 years old. Gabriel likes to dance and sculpt things with anything as long as if he can give it to someone. Like Courtney he was born prematurely. Gabriel likes to identify who people are by their voices and by their hands. During the week we found the Gabriel is really good at typing on the braille typewriter, a little contraption that consists of 6 buttons in a line to make individual letters. These people are 2 of many interesting people at BCVI’s camp.
One of my favorite events that was at BCVI’s camp was Karaoke night. This gave the blind kids, counselors and volunteers a chance to sing. It was so wonderful to see them dance, sing and cheer each other on as if they could watch the show. Since the beginning of BCVI’s camp, I have noticed that the saying “When you lose one of your senses, the others take over,” is true. I have watched the kids identify who people are by touch, by ear and by just feeling one’s presence. In my time at BCVI’s camp I got to spend time with these amazing, determined, brave kids who have impacted my life immensely. I truly look forward to next year!
Mrs Gantt, you would have been so proud of Maeve and Tessa teaching the campers how to strum chords on the ukuleles. They are natural teachers and talents!
We also had a field trip to the Princess Hotel for a pool party! It was a busy day!!
Most of the children use a brailler machine to practice their writing. The 6 keys on the device correspond with the six cells in a braille frame. The longer key in the middle is the space bar. It takes a lot of practice and coordination because you have to simultaneously press certain combinations of keys at the same time. The children feed a special weight paper into the machine and then begin typing.
If you make a mistake on the brailler you just scratch the extra dot off and it disappears! Just like with your writing, it’s okay to make mistakes. Gabriel typed a special note to Sarah Gaddipati and me-“the Sarahs,” as he called us, and the children at Brookwood. I’ll have the braille note up in my classroom if anyone wants to come feel it and check it out up close.
Here is a video of Gabriel typing up a special note to Sarah Gaddipati and me-“the Sarahs,” as he called us, and the children at Brookwood!
Just like students at Brookwood the kids have to practice their sight words!
Auntie Katie did clay exploration this afternoon!
Like Maeve and Tessa mentioned, karaoke night was very inspiring. So many brave campers got up to sing in front of an audience tonight. Just like you when you perform at School Meeting! Even Maeve and Tessa got up and did a duet to the song Lava on their ukuleles! Tessa also got on stage and helped 4 year old Joannie with the alphabet song. Gabriel did a dance to an ice cream song and the crowd went wild. Everyone was so supportive even though most people in the room couldn’t see the dance moves that he was doing. The kids all cheer each other on so much and have built a tight community.
Here is a little video montage from karaoke night:
The Ed Sheeran song, Perfect, will never be the same for me after hearing Courtney, a teenager who has been blind since birth, sing lyrics about “dancing in the dark.” Although Courtney dances, sings, writes plays and goes to college for business school in the dark every day she has one of the brightest inner lights I’ve ever seen. This girl radiates energy, kindness and wisdom beyond her years. She dedicated her performance to her Granny, who has been accompanying her to BCVI camp for the past 14 summers. She is always smiling and her favorite phrase is “Absolutely!” She is very excited to Skype with students at Brookwood next year, share her life experiences and answer your questions.
One sad part of camp was hearing stories about children who are blind getting teased at school because of how they look and because they can’t see. Some of the children have their eyes closed or flutter their eyes, some wear dark glasses and some of them you can only see the whites of their eyes and not the colored pupil. It may look a little scary at first just because it’s new and different, but as soon as you start talking to the campers you realize how friendly, funny, smart and loving they all are. Hearing their stories was such an important reminder to be kind, curious, compassionate and include everyone.
Our new friends Joannie, Jose, Robert and Gabriel! And Courtney, who we were usually with!
While we were volunteering at camp Krishna Gaddipati, Maeve and Tessa’s dad, was meeting with patients in the eye clinic. Here are some words from him: Belize eye clinic in Belize City provides eye care for the entire country. Unfortunately they are very short staffed with only one national ophthalmologist. I was able to tend to patients from all corners of the country and perform surgery on them as there is a dire need. The patients, the staff and clinic, the entire community was so thankful to have us there and we were thankful to be hands on in making their lives a little bit better.
Camp ended at noon on Friday so the kids could pack up their belongings and reunite with their families. The Gaddipatis and I went on an island adventure and took the ferry over to Caye Caulker. We went on an amazing snorkeling tour at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve that included stops at Shark and Stingray Alley, Coral Garden, the Tarpon hole and more. We even swam with sea turtles, my favorite! The water was so warm and clear and there were lots of dolphins splashing around the boats.
Krishna getting the attention of the tarpons. Don’t worry- they don’t have teeth!
Belize is working very hard to protect its waters and coral reefs. There were lots of reminders to be environmentally conscious.
Look how colorful our lodging was!
We had grilled spiny lobsters on the beach and found a fun restaurant in the ocean that had fish swimming around the tables. The island was filled with pastel colors buildings and shops.There were no cars, just golf carts and bicycles pedaling around. It was a very beautiful, peaceful way to end our trip and reflect on our incredible adventure together. Tessa, Maeve, Sarah, Krishna and I look forward to sharing more about our trip during the school year.
Oops, I almost forgot- we’ll be telling you a lot more about this courageous kid- Rowan Garel. He was a camper at BCVI for many years and raised money for the organization by accomplishing 3 huge athletic feats, all before he was 15 years old. He climbed Mt Victoria with a 3,000 peak, walked 92 miles across Belize and was the first blind person to scuba dive in the Blue Hole. That’s the perfect message to leave you with- anything is possible! Dream big, believe in yourself, be resilient and find ways around obstacles.
See you in September! Love, Ms Dawe