Good sports: With students as coaches, kids with visual impairments enjoy adventure, fun

Good sports: With students as coaches, kids with visual impairments enjoy adventure, fun

Addy Knight (left) and Abbey Wilkie, a senior, have fun at the rock climbing wall during Camp Abilities New Jersey at Rowan University. The program empowers young people with visual impairments through sports, physical activities and wellness education. Wilkie was Addy's coach during the program.

Climbing the rock wall was challenging. Nine-year-old Addy Knight admitted that.

“I was trying to pull myself up to the next rock,” she said. “It was hard, but I was staying strong.”

That she was, said Rowan University senior Abbey Wilkie, who was Addy’s coach for the day during Camp Abilities New Jersey at Rowan University, a one-day camp for blind and visually impaired young people.

Together, Addy and Abbey conquered their own fears and challenges, learning and growing together as they enjoyed every Camp Abilities activity…from the rock wall to tennis to wire walking to canoeing in the Rec Center pool to Capoeira, an activity that pairs dance and Brazilian martial arts.

It was a grand day, they agreed.

“We were talking about how we’ve both been scared rock climbing, but we were so excited for canoeing,” said Wilkie, a health and physical education major who was a first-time coach at Camp Abilities.

“I’ve done adapted PE before, but not Camp Abilities,” she continued. “I saw that there’s no limit. Addy’s energy and positive attitude just radiate through her. She does things that people who can see don’t do.”

“Yeah,” Addy chimed in. “I just go for it. Camp Abilities is adventurous…and that’s what I am.”

Empowering youths

Addy’s assessment—of the program and of herself—is exactly the goal of Camp Abilities, said Rowan Professor Maria Lepore-Stevens, director of the program. Lepore-Stevens, who teaches in the Department of Content Area Teacher Education in the College of Education, runs Camp Abilities programs in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Arizona. Altogether, there are 22 Camp Abilities programs nationally and internationally.

Watch a video about Rowan’s Camp Abilities here.

According to Lepore-Stevens, whose mom, Monica Lepore, co-founded Camp Abilities at SUNY-Brockport in 1996, the goal of Camp Abilities is to empower youths, ages 6-17, through sports, physical activities and wellness education.

Last year, Camp Abilities New Jersey at Rowan hosted two one-day camps in the spring and fall semesters, bringing a dozen young people to campus at each session. This summer, the camp will host its first overnight summer camp July 19-21. Lepore-Stevens expects the program to host 20 athletes.

Throughout the camp, athletes will participate in rock climbing, canoeing, and walking ropes courses while, also, learning fitness skills, cooking and other activities. They’ll live in Rowan residence halls, where students will serve as coaches and resident advisers.

Online registration is now open for athletes and coaches. The camp will be funded by the Foreseeable Future Foundation and by a grant from the New Jersey Health Foundation.

“We have a very strong Camp Abilities network,” Lepore-Stevens said. “Camp teaches self-determination and self-advocacy skills. Those skills can carry over to school settings.

“The athletes love being surrounded by people who want them to be successful. Our summer camp will provide opportunities for them to learn about themselves, independent of their families.”

All athletes in the program are paired with coaches, many of whom, like Wilkie, are Rowan students.

“A secondary goal of Camp Abilities is to train pre-service and in-service health educators, physical educators, dietitians, athletic trainers and special educators how to support children with visual impairments during physical activity,” Lepore-Stevens said.

‘They gain tremendous perspective’

“Rowan students get a lot out of their involvement,” added Health & Exercise Science Professor Shari Willis, co-director of Camp Abilities. Willis leads the camp’s adventure activities. “This gives them a focused time where they get to learn a lot about working with all children. They gain tremendous perspective.”

Senior health and physical education majors Julianna Corson and Gabe Sherry led activities at the fall Camp Abilities.

Corson organized a “human knot” activity, while Sherry invented a game that required athletes and their coaches to navigate across the gym to retrieve a pile of blocks. The activity taught teamwork and focus, he said. Both Corson and Sherry worked the Rowan one-day camp and the Delaware sleepaway camp in the past year.

“The block game helped with comfortability with touch and closeness, and, also, developing a sense of independence,” said Sherry, who serves on the executive board of Rowan Unified Sports. “Involvement in this boosts my experience and it’s fun. You can really make a difference for kids.”

“It’s awesome for us, but I just have so much happiness and joy for the kids,” said Corson. “It’s great to be a part of something that lets kids know they have so many adults in their corner.”

Addy felt that immediately with Wilkie, she said.

Over a pizza lunch, which campers made themselves and cooked in an air fryer under the tutelage of Health & Exercise Science Professor Smantha Lampert, a nutritionist, Addy heartily endorsed Wilkie’s teaching and coaching skills. Wilkie is studying to become an elementary school teacher.

“She will be wonderful,” Addy said in between bites of pepperoni pizza. “She’s going to be great.”