Rising to the challenge

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David Minton/DRC
TJ Smith and Jordan Bearden play goalball during the camp Wednesday.
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Children have challenges.

Some have more than others.

A camp hosted by Texas Woman’s University this week taught 17 children with big challenges about independence and the need to stay fit and active.

These kids, all with visual and/or hearing impairments, arrived at the weeklong Camp Abilities to participate in a range of physical activities — tandem biking, beep baseball, track and field, goalball, swimming and rock climbing.

Lisa Hanson, the camp’s director, said many of these students have never been exposed to physical activities such as those at Camp Abilities.

“So we’re providing them an atmosphere that’s safe that helps them kind of become comfortable with themselves in sports and activities and just lots of independence and [it] boosts their self esteem,” she said.

The campers stay in TWU dormitories. Half are from Denton schools and the rest from other North Texas communities.

Camp Abilities originated in 1996 at the State University of New York at Brockport and spread to other communities throughout the country. The Denton program is now in its third year. A state agency that assists visually impaired people pays tuition. The camper’s family has no out-of-pocket expenses.

Siblings Abbey and Jordan Bearden, who will attend Crownover Middle School this fall, live with poor eyesight. And they have their own thoughts about the camp and what it does for them.

Abbey, 12, said it helps her to stay active and in shape and gain confidence in her capabilities. She said it’s boosted her confidence and provides a place to be with other children like her.

Jordan, 11, said it allows participants to connect “with the outside world” and learn what it means to be independent.

He said he also has learned interdependence — not being afraid to ask for help when he needs it.

Alejandrl “Alex” Ortez, an 11-year-old who will be going to Myers Middle School, said he came to camp to lose weight, get away from his two younger siblings and “have a little fun.” Alex, a first-time participant, also has vision problems.

He said he’s enjoyed swimming and the sense of freedom the camp has given him. Every day, he has pushed himself by adding five laps onto his tandem biking exercise. By Wednesday, he was completing 4 miles on the bike.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I already made up my mind from the [first day of camp] that I was coming here next year.

“I have definitely lost and gained weight. I lost the bad weight and I gained the good weight ... and the bad weight is fat, cholesterol and stuff like that and good weight is muscle.”

Hanson, the camp director, said campers go through the week and become so focused that they forget about home. Some parents struggle with being separated from their children during camp, so she texts them about their child’s progress and sends photos showing how they’re doing.

Volunteers who specialize in helping disabled children come to Denton each year to work with Hanson and her 17 counselors — one for each child. This year, the counselors came from TWU and Stephen F. Austin University. They earn college credit for their efforts.

TWU graduate student Colin Hilley, who hopes to complete his master’s degree in adapted physical education in December, marveled at how Alex has thrown a shot put 21.5 feet and pushed himself on the bike. He said his interactions with Alex have motivated and inspired him.

Hilley hopes to return to camp next year.

“I’m learning something new from each and every one of the campers,” Hilley said. “And I’m learning from them more than they can ever learn from me.

“You read about this stuff in a textbook ... but when I actually get out there and I see them playing goalball or I see them riding a bike, or I see them climbing to the top of a wall and touching the roof ... I mean, it’s just mind-blowing. It blows me away. That’s what it’s all about.”

Each child is assessed at the beginning of camp. At the end, that assessment and a performance report are sent to parents and the physical education teacher at the child’s home school. The idea is to help the PE teacher keep the progress going and work them into campus sports programs.

The camp is not just about helping the child develop capabilities, Hanson said. It also helps parents see abilities in their child that they might not have recognized.

“Just because we might have to modify an activity or they learn it a little differently, that doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Hanson said. “They’re going to be successful and we’re going to make sure we show them how to be successful.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.


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