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Independent spirit: Visually impaired gain confidence through tactile art and mapping
Trevor Attenberg, Ellie Steinberg and artist Ann Cunningham, from left, pound the table to release air bubbles from the plaster of a pictograph during a training session for Camp Eureka! mentors at the University of Montana Sunday morning. The camp, which is held in August, is for children with visual impairments.
LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

Guiding her hands over ponderosa-studded mountaintops, across the smooth valley floor and down a serene stretch of the Flathead River, Katie Colton's got the whole world in her hands.

Or at least it feels that way to Colton, a visually impaired high school student from Park City, Utah, who spent part of Sunday morning pressing her fingertips against a giant tactile map of the land, water and mountain features she'll help navigate during a two-day, eight-mile canoe trip in August.

Colton, 15, spent the weekend in Missoula training to be a junior mentor at Camp Eureka!, a four-day-long natural history camp for children with visual impairments. The camp helps introduce blind children to the natural history of western Montana, and Colton is back for her second year to help campers realize they can fully enjoy nature as a multi-sensory experience.

"I'm most looking forward to the weather," said Colton, who has developed a passion for meteorology, and hopes to pique the interests of a few young campers this summer.

On Sunday, Colton and a group of blind mentors from around the country gathered in the University of Montana's Fine Arts Building to experiment with different styles of tactile art and teaching methods.

One mentor, Trevor Attenberg, a graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., designed a clay mold of a sun sticking its tongue out, then made a plaster cast reminiscent of the ancient rock carvings the process is meant to mimic.

In addition to tactile art and mapping, campers will learn orienteering skills using Braille compasses as a means to build confidence and gain greater independence.

"People who are blind can do anything and everything, and that's what we want our campers to realize," said Beth Underwood, the driving force behind the natural history camp for the blind.

Underwood spent 26 years as an environmental education specialist working both at the National Bison Range and the Lee Metcalf Refuge before she started to lose her vision after a bout with glaucoma.

She learned Braille, earned a teaching certificate and began tutoring a blind preschooler. But it wasn't long before she began considering the possibility of developing a summertime nature camp for blind children.

Now in its fourth year, Camp Eureka! attracts young campers from all parts of western Montana. They'll learn boating, safety and rescue skills as they prepare for the canoe-and-camping trip, and will also explore a nature trail that winds along the lake shoreline, studying the ecology, geology and cultural history of the area.

Dan Burke, president of the Montana Association for the Blind, said the camp uses "alternative techniques of blindness" to teach scientific observation and life skills.

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"It's an opportunity to open the door to a new way of thinking about blindness, and to learn to live successfully as a blind person," Burke said.

The camp is based at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station, which features rustic cabins, study areas and research labs. Campers will also learn traditional skills practiced by Native Americans, and will have the opportunity to listen to a traditional Salish drumming group.

"The camp is a great opportunity for the kids to experience nature, and for us to enjoy it in a different way," said Marie Hopper, who teaches Braille at Hellgate Elementary School and has played an active role in Camp Eureka! from the beginning.

"The most important thing is to give them the knowledge that they can do whatever they want to do," said Cindy Letcher, a visually impaired Missoula woman and camp mentor. "That's a big hurdle for blind children."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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