Last weekend was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Annually on that long weekend, I volunteer to work with a winter camp for children who are blind and visually impaired sponsored by the RI Lions Sight Foundation. By “work” I mean staying at the Indian Head Resort in Lincoln, N.H., sleeping in a king-sized bed with fresh sheets. Unlike at home, there is no lack of hot water when I take a shower. The meals are amazing (prime rib, baked stuffed shrimp, personally prepared omelets and so forth.) I can drink all of the Diet Coke I want without worrying about running out. But my biggest joy is watching the children thrive amongst each other.
Many of the children who attended are from underprivileged areas. One child is an immigrant, here on a humanitarian visa because the medical intricacies of her blindness could not be dealt in the country in which she lived. Almost totally blind, she was able to get some help at Mass Eye and Ear so she regained a little bit of vision. Because she, and many of the children, do not have easy access to the list of supplies that are required for such a trip, the other volunteers and I always bring extra bags of clothing including; swimsuits, snow pants, heavy winter coats, shoes, (yes, some children come in flip flops), socks, hats and gloves. The bags are always emptied by the time we leave for home. However, this is not a sob story, but a joyous one.
Before going sledding, a group picture was taken with the children all bundled up in their winter gear. Amusingly, a few looked like the Michelin Man as they had trouble walking in the unfamiliar snow pants, heavy winter coats and boots. The volunteers made sure to hold their hands so they wouldn't fall down flat. It had snowed heavily the night before, and the branches of the huge pine trees were weighed down with whiteness. The mountains loomed behind them, also covered in snow. The sun was just coming up over the top of the ridge like a halo in the background as the picture was taken; forty children and volunteers, smiling faces poking out from underneath hoods and hats.
Sledding was a new experience for several of the children. In order to guarantee a safe ride down the hill, a volunteer would join his/her own tube with the child's and both would gleefully sled down the bumpy slope. Often, groups of four or five would band their tubes together in a cacophony of laughter, bonding as they enjoyed this experience. Forming friendships had often eluded these children in their schools and communities, but friendships were formed on the sledding slope in New Hampshire.
Once back at the hotel, another unique bonding activity occurred. It goes without saying that the children loved swimming in the indoor heated pool, especially the girl who was an immigrant who flapped around in the water laughing with joy. (Apparently, it was the first time she had ever been in a pool!) My role was the “lifeguard” as I sat on a pool noodle in the middle of the water, directing the children back towards the shallow end of the pool. (Without vision, they often lost their bearings and would inadvertently swim out too deep.) The piece de resistance was the outside hot tub. Running outside in the snow, many of the children and volunteers climbed into the hot water, and sat down with pure pleasure.
The morning we were to leave, the children played Bingo (in Braille and large print) and won dollar bills as prizes. At the end of the game, they each entered the souvenir shop with a chaperone to pick their prize among the delightful trinkets, potato chips and candy. Afterwards, I went to each hotel room to leave a $10 tip for the maid. This was a new concept for most of the children, but I explained what it was for and trusted them to put the money into the appropriate envelope. It was reported to me that one of the boys from the inner city who came without much clothing and wore flip flops on the bus, walked up to look at the envelope. Putting his nose right up to it and peaking in at the $10 bill, the chaperone was just about to tell him to leave the money alone when the boy pulled out a small package of Starburst candies. He carefully picked out two candies and put them in the envelope as a treat for the maid. This one, small, generous token of appreciated touched my heart. All of the children on this trip were my Starburst surprises!