Birds of a feather: Visually impaired youth find new experiences, friendship at Northampton camp

Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — In a quiet classroom on the Smith College campus Friday, a tiny, big-eyed saw-whet owl perched calmly while 10-year-old Paige Drury let her hands be guided until she was gently stroking feathers on the bird’s back.

Afterwards, Drury, who is blind, smiled when she described what it felt like to touch an owl for the first time. “It felt like it was so soft that after you touched it, some would be on your hands, but it wasn’t,” she said.

Drury, of Glastonbury Connecticut, was one of 16 blind or visually impaired campers attending the Western Massachusetts Carroll Teens summer enrichment camp. Run by the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, the nine girls and six boys, between 10 and 16, hail mostly from western Massachusetts.

On this morning, they were taking part in a program with the Leverett-based WingMasters, run by Julie Anne Collier, which offers educational presentations with birds of prey.

Among other fun facts, Collier told the campers the owl weighed 3½ ounces, the same as a bar of chocolate. She brought it close enough for them to pet one by one, which elicited gasps and quiet “oohs.”

Collier said it was her first time giving the presentation to visually impaired people, but touch is always important in her presentations. Besides the sensation of the owl’s feathers, campers could feel a sharp talon from a great horned owl, the long teeth of a beaver skull, and any of a number of Native American artifacts Collier had brought in — from furs to a rattle made of a snapping turtle shell.

They could also hear the sound of the red-tailed hawk flapping its wings and the great horned owl clacking its beak in agitation. Even the absence of sound was a lesson: Unlike the hawk and falcon, when the owls beat their wings, there was plenty of air movement but no sound.

“Dang, that’s a breeze!” exclaimed Aidhan Kerin, 15, of Adams, as the great horned owl flapped all five feet of its wings in front of him.

“Owls’ feathers are so soft, they can fly with no sound,” Collier explained.

Enjoying the birds right along with the campers was Richard Ely, a visually impaired Florence resident who started the camp three years ago after over two decades of working with visually impaired students in area schools.

Ely said he convinced his employers at the Carroll Center for the Blind that western Massachusetts needed its own version of camps held in Newton for children and teens. “Nothing much like that happens out here,” he said.

“A lot of these kids never get a chance to meet another visually impaired student,” he said. A teen who is usually the only visually impaired student in his or her school can come to the camp for 11 days and join 15 peers who understand what it means to have vision problems.

“If I had to say what the most important thing about camp is, it would be that, and also that a lot of the staff are blind or visually impaired,” said Ely, its director. “They can have that interaction and meet adults who are living their lives with visual impairment.”

The campers gain confidence, learn social skills and make friends. “It’s also just fun,” he said.

Being away from home is a great chance for the children and teens to practice skills, he said, including familiarizing themselves with new surroundings and using canes to navigate the campus paths. They have camp classes in “activities of daily living,” braille and technology.

The technology class is a big hit, Ely said, “because iPads are cool.” Campers can use apps and Bluetooth braille attachments with the tablets, and some visually impaired people can use an iPad camera to zoom in on something to see it up close. Melissa LeClerc, 15, of Canton used an iPad that way throughout Collier’s presentation.

The campers have also enjoyed a movie together — using a “described video” DVD for visually impaired people that includes narration of every scene — and listened to a radio theater piece. On Monday, they will head to a studio in Hartford, Connecticut, to try their hands at weaving.

The camp is expensive to run, mostly due to the need for a three-to-one camper-to-staff member ratio, Ely said. He declined to say how much tuition cost, but said he believes the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind picked up the bill for every camper.

Isabella Cherin, 10, of Woburn, said her favorite parts of the camp so far have been a trip to the Smith College gym, technology classes, getting to stay in dorm rooms and the saw-whet owl, “because it’s cute.”

Staff member Josh Pearson, 22, of Sunderland, got a good sense of the owl by touching first its tail feathers and then the feathers on its swiveling head. At his feet, his service dog, a yellow Labrador named Alpha, was indifferent to all the birds.

“I’ve encountered a few owls in the woods and to get to experience them up close is great,” Pearson said. He has heard them hooting in the woods and he has gone bird watching with friends who have given him visual descriptions, “so I could draw my own mental image.”

“But to touch and smell it, I can really supplement what I knew,” he said. The bird had a clean smell, he said.

Pearson, a UMass Amherst student, said he attended Carroll Center camps when he was younger. “It’s great because it gives them experiences like this,” he said.

While he was lucky to grow up on a farm in Barre, he said, other visually impaired children may not have had much exposure to animals. “A lot of them only get this stuff from books and TV. This is one more way to help the kids be independent and to think independently,” he said.

Collier said all of the birds she has at her home have been injured, mostly by cars, or have other handicaps that mean they cannot survive in the wild.

The campers perked up when she mentioned that two of the birds were visually impaired. The great horned owl is blind in one eye, so it cannot see depth, and the small screech owl is completely blind. As the screech owl perched on her hand, it swiveled its head often to collect information about its surroundings from sounds, she explained.

“How do the other birds treat it?” Pearson asked.

Collier explained that usually, birds of prey in the wild will ignore another bird with any kind of handicap. But, she said, she has heard of a hawk helping its injured mate survive until it was treated by a wildlife clinic.

“A mate will take care of its mate,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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