Camping For The Blind

Hometown Heroes, People
on June 3, 2007
Kurt Wilson Beth Underwood created Camp Eureka!, a nature camp for blind kids.

On a brilliant summer day along the Bitterroot River in southwestern Montana, Lauren Beyer, 11, touches a frog for the first time. “Oooh, I didn’t know they felt like this . . . cold and slippery,” exclaims Beyer, who was born blind. For Beth Underwood, 57, such moments are why she started Camp Eureka!, a free nature camp for blind children.

The camp’s origins were born out of Underwood’s own tragic diagnosis. In 1999, while working to develop outdoor educational programs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she noticed her vision dwindling. She was stunned when an ophthalmologist told her she had chronic and acute glaucoma, and that her vision loss was permanent.

Underwood took some time off from her teaching job to deal with her diagnosis and contemplate her future. But before long she decided to learn braille and renew her teaching license. “I don’t spend much time agonizing over the past,” says the former English instructor.

Through contacts at the local office of the Montana Blind and Low Vision and Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Underwood was offered a job working with a blind 3-year-old named Tiana, and found great joy in helping the girl discover the world around her.

That’s when her husband, Jack, suggested she start a camp for blind kids. The idea struck a chord with Underwood. “I knew I could do it,” says Underwood, who has undergone several surgeries to slow the progression of her vision loss.

Her first few phone calls met with an enthusiastic response. When the National Federation of the Blind gave her a check for $5,000 in start-up money, she contacted the Teller Wildlife Refuge near her home in Stevensville, Mont. (pop. 1,553), where campers would have access to 1,200 acres of ponds, streams, fields and nature trails. An old two-story farmhouse with a large wraparound porch offered plenty of space for campers to spread out their sleeping bags.

Many phone calls, grant applications and meetings later, Underwood had the money to start Camp Eureka!, which opened in June 2005. Underwood felt giddy with excitement as cars rolled in with the campers, four girls and four boys, ages 8 to 13. During the long, warm summer days, they tromped through pine forests, listened to songbirds and learned about their habits, rafted the Bitterroot River and studied the creatures that lived along its banks, and sampled the same kinds of food that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark ate 200 years ago.

This year, Camp Eureka! is scheduled to host a dozen campers for five days at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station in Polson (pop. 4,041). Like other summer camps, there will be water fights and singing around the campfire. But unlike other camps, half of the 12 volunteer counselors are blind. It’s part of Underwood’s method, to provide positive role models for the kids.

“Blindness is a low-incidence handicap,” she says. “So a blind child in Montana might never know a blind adult” without the camp.

While campers are discovering the outside world, they’ll also learn a lot about themselves. “You hear these conversations among them, ‘Are you scared of the raft trip?’ ‘Are you going anyway?’ And pretty soon you hear them talking each other into things,” says John Recore, a sighted Camp Eureka! volunteer from Billings, Mont.

Overcoming fear is exhilarating for blind campers and their parents. “Lauren said it felt like Christmas,” says her mother, Gwen Beyer. “She can’t wait to go back.”

For Underwood, who serves as the director of Camp Eureka!, the kids’ enthusiasm is contagious. “I’ve always loved seeing the world through the eyes of a child,” she says. “The fact that those eyes are blind doesn’t make it any less magical.”