Twelve-year-old Marcelus Newton is in his seventh year at the same summer-camp program, but he still talks about its three weeks of fun and learning with the excitement of a first-timer.
"The camp was fun," he exclaimed. "I learned how to swim and made a boat out of wood. I don't know what I'd do during the summer if I couldn't go back."
Marcelus, who was born with glaucoma and is going blind, is one of 34 visually handicapped youngsters 5 to 18 years old who have been attending the 20th annual Special Summer Program, run by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
The three-week program, which ends this Friday, is in many ways typical of summer camps. It includes classes in woodworking, arts and crafts, cooking, indoor and outdoor sports, music and exercise, vocational seminars and academic counseling in math and reading.
"But activities which students have favored the most," said Rosalind Barrett, director of the camp at Woodson High School, where older children attend, "range from sports to the annual Braille car rally," a race sponsored by the camp at Lake Needwood, Md., in which blind students ride alongside sighted drivers and read directions from Braille cards.
The camp is operated weekdays at the D.C. Therapeutic Recreation Center, 3030 G St. SE, for preschoolers and at Woodson, 55th and Eads streets NE, for older children. The program is staffed by professionals from the Columbia Lighthouse and volunteers who work for the District and Prince George's County public schools during the school year.
The summer program, including daily transportation to and from home, is free to any Washington-area child who is visually impaired or legally blind.
It is an extension of the Columbia Lighthouse's Infant and Child Development Program, a year-round effort conducted at its headquarters, 1421 P St. NW. The program teaches the children toilet-training, self-feeding, swimming and other skills to "help build confidence" and to "strengthen their independent living skills," according to Lighthouse spokesman Preston Pitts.
"People never ask blind children, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' fearing that they would never excel," said Pitts, who first came to the organization as a volunteer.
On one of the camp's weekly field trips, the youngsters learned about supermarket skills at the Giant Food supermarket at 3924 Minnesota Ave. SE. They learned about shopping by questioning employes, and one student helped a meat cutter.
Last week, they toured the District Building to learn how the city government functions. They were greeted by Mayor Marion Barry and photographed with him.
At the infant camp, directed by Judy Berg, toddlers have gone on nature walks and to the Martin Luther King Library for story readings.
Twice a week, the students are bused to Kelly Miller Recreation Center in Southeast, where they have exclusive use of the swimming pool.
Marcelus Newton, who has been enrolled in the infant and child program since he was 5 months old, has attended the camp for seven years. "The organization has been very supportive and assisted us in coping with our problems," said his mother Carolyn Newton. "I really wouldn't feel comfortable with his going to any other camp."
The Lighthouse hopes to increase the camp enrollment to 50 next year and plans to add computer classes, Barrett said.