by Gail Katona
Editor's note: Mrs. Gail Katona was the 1993 recipient of the National Federation of the Blind's Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the education of blind students at Zia Elementary oftentimes goes beyond the classroom. Education is more than learning how to read and write; education is also providing students with real-life, everyday experiences. This is especially true for blind children. Sometimes people think that blind kids can't, or shouldn't, do what other kids their age are doing. We know this is not true. As teachers and parents it is up to us to help our children be regular kids and to provide them with the ordinary experiences of childhood.
For the past three years the teaching staff for the visually impaired at Zia Elementary has talked about taking the class on a camping trip. This year we made it a reality. We began planning the trip by setting a date for May 21-23, 1993. Rye Gerry, one of the teachers, and George Binder, our O&M instructor, masterminded the trip. (IþGail Katonaþam not much of a camper, so I provided moral support.) We spent weeks figuring out what was needed: how many tents, sleeping bags, how much and what kind of food, how we would get there, who was coming, and so forth. It was our original intention to take all thirteen students with just a few extra adults to help out. However, as the time of the trip drew closer, we had entire families wanting to come along. Well, the more the merrier! We ended up having thirty-nine people spending at least one night in the mountains with us. Our local NFB Parents of Blind Children Division group paid for all the food and individual families pitched in with supplies.
On Friday, May 21, 1993, we spent most of the school day getting ready for the trip; packing food, making muffins, cutting veggies, and learning how to put up a tent (after, that is, first discovering just what a tent is and what it looks like!). After school we loaded four pick-up trucks and one car with all of the gear and the kids. We were off to the Pecos Mountains in northern New Mexico!
We had reserved a beautiful group campsite so we knew we had plenty of room to pitch tents. As soon as we arrived, the sky opened up and it started to rain. We scrambled to unload and threw everything (including the kids) under the pavilion to stay dry. We knew as soon as the sun set it would be very cold, soþrain or no rainþwe proceeded to get the tents up. After the tents were up, the kids eventually found all of their gear. We had hot dogs for dinner and everyone settled in for the night.
We woke up early in the morning to find ice on the inside of all of our tents. No wonder I froze during the night! After a breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and cereal, the kids were allowed to roam wild and explore. Each child had a whistle around his or her neck in case he or she got into trouble and needed to call for help. Everyone was also required to always travel with a buddy. With all of the adults we had it was easy to keep an eye on everyone.
Over the next two days the kids raced around the wilderness, went on hikes, tried fishing, went wading in the frigid stream, roasted marshmallows, gathered firewood, sang campfire songs, (under the pavilion because it rained again), got really dirty, and had a wonderful time. It's a good thing Armando's family brought a large tent (and figured out how to pitch it), because it was always full of kids. We were definitely a tired bunch of campers by the time we got back to Albuquerque Sunday afternoon.
There were a number of incidents of note. First of all, no one fell in the creek! Rye had to hero- ically jump in to rescue Francine's cane as it floated away, but that doesn't count. Michael would get the award for finding and immersing himself in the largest quantity of mud. Henry Ray should be commended for his good judgment in pitching head-first into everything except the campfire. Valene single-handedly attracted a variety of clack-chinned hummingbirds to our camp with her bejeweled cap. Nick decided he likes muffins after all. Darren and Michelle should get an award for achieving the farthest distance from their shoes. Louise proved herself to be the most accomplished fisherwomanþshe caught three trout. Jennifer should have the award for sleeping the latest, and George for going to bed the earliest. Debbie and Brent demonstrated that they were the most courageous and determined by washing their hair in the unheated mountain water. Elisha's cane technique on the path to the restroom was outstanding! Chris was the most enthusiastic participant in B-I-N-G-O. Lonnie was the most accomplished sleeper in a cramped space. Mike Momola is invited on any and all camping trips because anyone who shows up with a full coffee pot at 6 a.m. is indispensable! Fail would get the mind-over-body awardþshe was up (and functioning) before 6:30 a.m. both days! Doug is to be commended for outstanding cane technique when crossing a stream. Flora had a sense of humor even at 7:00 a.m. on a thirty-degree morning. Darren learned not to put his sleeping bag on a slope (he kept sliding out the top). Kevin sustained no injury when he fell off his air mattress. And finally, Geronimo must have had the most fun of all. When Rye dropped him and Doug off at home on Sunday afternoon, he got back in the car five times asking to go back! We plan to make the camping trip a yearly tradition because we had such a fun weekend. There were certainly some glitches in the organizational process, but that was to be expected for the first time out. We will be taking notes and keeping a camping trip file so that we will be better prepared next year.
It was so rewarding to see all the kids, blind and sighted, charging off together to explore. The only way you could tell them apart was by the white canes. And that's the way it should be: no difference in expectations, no difference in activities, just the difference of the alternative techniques needed for achieving and having fun, too!