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Camp offers the blind a chance to get in the game

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011 8:48 p.m. MDT

LEHI — Fernando Cabana shakes and groans a little as he clings to the rock wall. Blind since birth, the 16-year-old may not be able see the wall he hopes to climb, but he can feel it stretching beyond his reach.

Exhausted but determined, he rests his head on the wall for just a moment.

His climbing partner, Elliott Parkin, is also visually impaired, but he notices that Cabana isn't moving upward anymore and asks him for the fourth time if he wants to come down.

"No," Cabana calls back, and then sweeps his foot around desperately searching for a foothold.

At first he finds nothing that will help propel him up the wall at the Momentum Climbing gym in Sandy, but then the tip of his toe touches something promising. He shoves against the plastic as hard as he can and grunts as he pushes himself a few more inches up the wall.

It takes him nearly 40 minutes to reach the top. When he finally reaches the floor, he collapses, sweat dripping off of his forehead.

And then he grins at no one in particular.

Many people would be discouraged to struggle with such a slow climb.

But Cabana is just thrilled that he made it all the way to the top, especially since it took him about 30 minutes to learn to tie the knot that would keep him safe.

Lewis Burdette, 22, and a veteran of the sports camp hosted by the Utah Foundation for the Blind, taught him how to trace the figure eight with his finger.

For Cabana, being able to learn new sports and meet new people reduces the isolation that sometimes accompanies blindness and visual impairment.

"I want to study exercise science," said Burdette. "I have always enjoyed physical activity, and I want to find a way to teach blind kids ways to do things that will keep them active."

Burdette learned to wrestle at a UFB blind camp about 10 years ago, and it allowed him to wrestle at Union High. He said inactivity is a serious issue for those with visual impairment.

"I think there is a big problem," he said. "There is a lot of inactivity, and this sports camp is an amazing way to counteract that. It teaches kids some of the things they can do."

And for some of the youngsters, they've heard all too often what other people think they cannot do.

"It happens all the time," said Jalayne Engberg, Alpine School District's coordinator for visually impaired students, of people telling the blind that they can't do certain things. "It's OK though, because they're going to get that throughout their lives. They learn that the best way to approach it is to just show people that they can do it."

Which is why the UFB's sports camp is something many of these children look forward to all year long.

"It's really fun," said Cabana. "I love wrestling. I tried it first three years ago, and then I thought, 'If I am doing this, and I know my school has it, I could wrestle at my (high) school.’ ”

Cabana did just that, wrestling for Timpanogos High last year as a sophomore.

"I lost pretty much all of my matches," he said grinning. "But I did get my experience."

For others, last week's camp, which featured track, judo, swimming, ice skating and rock climbing, was their first exposure to sports.

"I learned a lot of new things I hadn't learned before," said Edit Ceja, a junior at Granger High. "I really liked it."

David Ashton, 20, said it's not just being able to try new sports that makes the camp so enjoyable.

"You get to make new friends, and I just enjoy being with everybody," he said.

Engberg said she got involved in the sports camp after talking with her students about what they enjoyed doing away from school. When most of them didn't have hobbies, she realized she needed to help them learn more than Braille and academics.

"Life is about having fun and making connections," she said. "What you like to do can lead to a career. They didn't have that."

She said that too often the blind are isolated because of what others believe they can or can't do.

"They learn to work as a team," Engberg said of the benefits. "They are able to work together on an equal basis (with sighted students) because they've tried the sports at camp and they know how to do them. It helps them be able to interact with kids at school. … They learn how to work together, how to get up for practice, how to work hard. It's not just about sports. It's about learning life's lessons."

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email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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