Zip, hike, raft, wade

Summer vacation—it’s something almost every school-age kid eagerly anticipates. But that wasn’t the case for Sam Chandler at age 11. Sam’s been nearly blind since he was very young—he has no vision in the left eye and 20/1600 in the right eye. That means that what he can see at 20 feet, the average person can see clearly at 1600 feet.

“I’m sure I have more eye conditions than I do fingers and toes,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in my own little world. I mean there’s all these sighted kids and then me. But I’m happy, and together we’ve learned that I don’t need help unless I ask for it.”

Summer vacation wasn’t much fun; Sam was bored stiff. So when he heard about a day camp for kids who were visually impaired or blind, he was intrigued. These summer camps are free for children who are blind or visually impaired, thanks to generous donations to the nonprofit IFB Solutions with locations in Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Little Rock, AK. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide employment, services, and training for people who are blind.

“I went to my first SEE (Student Enrichment Experience) camp as a pre-teen,” said Chandler, now 18. “I learned a lot, hung out, and explored the neighborhood. I continued going to summer camp to give me something to do.”

Chandler uses technology to “see” his way around. Some of that includes special programs on his laptop and phone. He also uses a white cane.

When IFB Solutions started a SEE Adventure Camp at Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), Chandler was quick to sign up.  Never one to hesitate to try something new, he totally enjoyed hiking, rafting, ziplining, and being with other children who are blind. This week-long camp is also free for rising 8-12 graders who are visually impaired or blind.

“My first adventure camp experience was unique—it was one long series of new things I’d never done. I had read about the Old West and the hiking and rafting the pioneers had done, and with this experience I tricked myself into thinking I was doing it like they did,” he said.

Was he ever scared? Not really. His family hunts so he knew intellectually what was going on and had hunted and fished for years. He felt at home outdoors participating in all the activities.

After Chandler’s first Adventure Camp, he continued to come back each summer, including last summer. The more he came, the more he pitched in as a veteran camper to help other campers. When SEE Camp Abilities H2O began at Lake Norman near Charlotte, he also attended several times and helped others there. In his third year of attendance he became a camp counselor, something he’s treasured.

 “I had to complete an essay to get in, but I made it, and basically I hauled things around for people.  As a counselor I just tried to pass along things I’ve learned,” he explained. “I made sure they knew they could also do all these things. Truth is, I learned more from them than they did from me.”

Jay Hardwig works for IFB Solutions and is the director of the SEE Camps in Asheville and the SEE Adventure and SEE Abilities H2O Camps.

 “The campers are kids we have met over the years, and our goal is to get them off the couch and into the woods—to hike, zip, climb, and raft in the wilds of western North Carolina,” said Hardwig. “I love the outdoors and most of these kids have never had the chance to do any of this, to stretch outside their comfort zone. I believe that doing these things breeds confidence and a sense of power.”

Hardwig stresses that none of the activities are modified.  Campers—many coming from throughout the Southeast—only receive a bit more explanation than sighted people. He also notes that the impacts last a long time after they leave the Nantahala Gorge.

 “We’ve used different camp mottos through the years, but the one that sticks is ‘Get on Up!’ That might mean get up out of bed, get on the climbing tower, on a zip line, or on a raft going through white water. Whatever it is, our goal is to help them bring that get on up spirit to their daily lives,” said Hardwig. 

Chandler is all about bringing more campers who are blind to the SEE Adventure Camp because he knows how life changing it can be.

“What we’re doing for campers who are blind is opening the door, making them aware of what’s out there in this beautiful world. But if you’re not going anywhere there aren’t paved roads and a Starbucks, it’s probably not for you.”

The camps are staffed by certified teachers for the visually impaired and are the brainchild of Chris Flynt, Director of IFB Solutions Programs, who lost his own vision to retinitis pigmentosa in early adulthood. Flynt started the day campsin Asheville a decade ago. Five years into the day camps Hardwig wanted to expand the experience into a residentialcamp, so in 2016 the first Adventure Camp was tested for just a day.

“Our campers grow up in a world that is skeptical of their skill. They hear too many messages of blindness as a disability, and live in a world of overabundant caution, with too many can’ts in the places of cans. In hitting the trail, we hope to help them expand possibility, reward curiosity, and nurture the spirit of adventure that beats in every heart,” said Hardwig.

This year’s SEE Adventure Camp happens July 28-August 1 at NOC in western North Carolina. To learn more, check out https://ifbsolutions.org/programs-services/see-summer-camps/, email camps@ifbsolutions.org, or call 828.667.9778, x 5802.

Sam Chandler went into this experience for an adventure and had no idea it would lead to his friends experiencing his story on the big screen. The year Adventure Camp started, Sam and his fellow campers found themselves the stars of a documentary that took the 2019 RiverRun International Film Festival by storm. See the trailer here  https://ifbsolutions.org/programs-services/blind-adventure-camp-film/  and look for this documentary film in independent film festivals across the southeast.