Summer Camp at Guide Dogs for the Blind

Wonka and Gavin Sheafer are a natural pair. They walked together at a fast pace.

Wonka and Gavin Sheafer are a natural pair. They walked together at a fast pace.

On the sunny, sprawling grounds of the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in Boring, Oregon, nineteen teenagers from a dozen US states and one from Argentina gathered for a week of summer camp in late June. Living in the dormitories, meeting new friends, and roasting marshmallows, they spend their week much like teenagers at any other summer camp. But these campers — who range in age from 14 to 17 — are all legally blind, and their mixing the summer-camp activities with some serious contemplation about whether they’ll someday want a full-time guide dog.

Camp counselors say the students also come for the bonding experience — the chance to meet other seeing-impaired people their own age. Five of them are repeat campers, returning each summer for the education, camaraderie, field trips, and the interaction with guide dogs in training.

“But for most, it’s their first experience of walking with a guide dog, or even just interacting with a guide dog,” says camp volunteer, Betsy LaFlamme. “There’s a huge difference. When you’re walking with a cane, you go from obstacle to obstacle. It’s like being a ping-pong ball. With a guide dog you smoothly go around, even though an obstacle is there”

Professionally, LaFlamme works as a teacher of the visually impaired. She helps students build skills such as walking with a cane, negotiating busy sidewalks, and building their independence — all skills that she says they must master before they train to have a guide dog. “One of the things that kids here are learning is, do I have the skills to do this? A dog’s not going to tell them when it’s safe to cross the street or when to turn the corner.”

LaFlamme has volunteered here since the camp’s inception a dozen years ago. In addition to the skills involved in partnering with and caring for a dog, she says students also consider the general lifestyle changes that come with having a guide dog. “If you’re shy and you walk with a cane, people sort of part the way and let you pass. If you have a guide dog, people want to talk to you about your dog. It’s a guide dog lifestyle. For some people it’s like freedom! For other people, they say, ‘No, I’m better with my cane.’”

Maya Andrick sees a guide dog in her future.

Maya Andrick sees a guide dog in her future.

“I definitely want a guide dog.”

Fourteen-year-old Maya Andrick from Bend, Oregon, is attending camp for the first time. She says she’s often thought she might someday want to apply for her own guide dog, but attending camp has sealed the deal. “I was just walking with a dog and it was super fun. I’m real excited to get older so I can apply.” Camp organizers say there’s no set age at which someone can apply for a dog. Recipients determine their readiness based on factors like maturity, lifestyle, living circumstances, and travel independence.

After her camp experience, Maya is motivated to meet all the guidelines as soon as she can. “Since I can’t drive, this is a way of getting my independence someday.”

At home in Bend, Maya lives with a pet dog who once started and left an assistance-dog training program — a so-called career-change dog. She says her mom’s friend also has a guide dog, so she’s somewhat familiar with assistance dogs, but coming to camp allowed her to try walking with one for the first time. Walking the wooded trails around the campus, she noticed the guide dog stayed focused on the job at hand. “They don’t sniff everything; my dog would do that! They don’t get all excited; they just chill.”

“My ultimate goal is to not need a dog.”

Gavin Sheafer from Portland is attending his second year of camp. By next summer, shortly after his high school graduation, he’ll age out of the camp, but hopes to return as a volunteer. “I really enjoy dogs and having a guide dog will be cool. But hopefully I won’t need one. That’s the goal of every seeing impaired kid — that they won’t need one.”

He’s scheduled for a surgery that may preserve enough of his sight that he wouldn’t need the assistance of a guide dog. “But Guide Dogs [for the Blind} has helped me tremendously, just with advocacy and education. I didn’t even have a cane until last year when Guide Dogs found me. I would just walk around because I didn’t even know a cane was a possibility for me, being visually impaired.”

Sheafer has a form of albinism, which contributes to vision issues that include extreme light sensitivity. “Guide Dogs helped me out with three pairs of sunglasses that I can wear for various circumstances with different levels of shade. They do a lot of things to help me out.”

Sheafer plans to continue to be involved with Guide Dogs, and, even if he ultimately doesn’t need one himself, wants to help future campers have the experience of meeting and interacting with the dogs.

“You’re turning over your trust to the dog to be sure you’re not running into things,” Sheafer explains. But the dog and the human form a partnership. “As much as the dog is guiding you and helping you out, you’re guiding the dog as well. The dog doesn’t know where you’re going; the dog is just there to make sure you don’t run into people or obstacles.”

Michelle Blake is Managing Editor at Spot Magazine.