Campers in flashing hats, tie-dye shirts and costumes filed onto a Brookville stage Friday to perform in their camp’s annual end-of-summer show, guided by the steady hand of their camp counselors, other campers, or their probing canes.
The campers attend Camp Helen Keller, a summer program created more than 60 years ago for children aged 5 to 15 who are blind or visually impaired.
“It’s all about allowing kids to be independent, feel comfortable with themselves,” said Joe Bruno, CEO of Helen Keller Services.
Every year, the camp organizes a show on the last day of the five-week program to celebrate the campers’ achievements, show parents and friends what campers have been doing and to say goodbye to old and new friends, Bruno said.
This year’s show was called “The Music of Motown.” Family members and friends watched as the campers danced and sang along to top hits such as “Superstition,” “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “Stand By Me,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
“I actually did enjoy the show,” said camper Anthony Donas, 15, of Levittown who cannot perceive light. “I really enjoyed it very much.”
The camp’s main goal is to improve participants' self-esteem, self-confidence and socialization skills, camp organizers said. It is held at the LIU Post campus in Brookville and admits campers from Nassau, Suffolk and Queens, who receive free door-to-door transportation.
“This camp, Helen Keller, gives confidence to kids to be themselves,” said Mary Anne Palmese, 44, of Sound Beach. Her daughter Samantha, 11, has achromatopsia, which affects an individual's perception of color. Samantha has attended the camp for four years, commuting two hours each way to get there.
“All four years, she’s never complained just because of what she gets out of it,” Palmese said.
Campers participate in traditional activities, such as swimming, arts and crafts, music and dance classes, and field trips and technology classes that have been adapted for visually impaired people, said camp director Stephanie Trollo of Queens.
Adaptations include using outdoor equipment that buzzes and has bells, outlining drawings with glue so that children can feel the shape while they color and paint, and putting Braille characters on board games, said Trollo, 30.
“It’s just good to be around people who are like you and know your experiences and can relate to you,” said camper Yazzy Straker of Queens, 15, who has albinism that makes her legally blind. She has attended the camp for eight years. “They all understand my visual impairment."
Attending the camp is free because it is subsidized by the New York State Commission for the Blind, camp organizers said. It is staffed by rehabilitation and education professionals, as well as past campers, who form personal bonds with the campers and provide them with focused attention, they said.
"We get lucky every year," Trollo said. "Somehow the best kids in the world end up here."