Friday, May 16, 2014

Happiness is a camp in Leonardo

While looking for the Conover Beacon, I found an interesting little enclave of cheerful looking one-story white buildings nestled among the suburban houses of Leonardo. They looked a lot like the kind of cabins or bunkhouses you'd find at an active summer camp, or maybe a church retreat center. Had they been more Victorian in style, or older, I'd have thought I'd stumbled on another shoreside Methodist camp meeting association, but they appear to have been built sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

The sign out front declared "Camp Happiness - NJ Blind Citizens Association." However, no tents were pitched on the property that I could see, and there seemed to be plenty of activity. Was this really a camp? And if not, what exactly is it?

To consider the need for a place like Happiness, one needs to consider the vast changes the community of blind Americans has experienced over the past two centuries, enabling them to participate fully in society. At the start, very few schools addressed the needs of blind students. Even if parents knew about the academies, many lacked the resources to send their children for a specialized education. Mobility was an issue, too. Concerted efforts to train guide dogs only began after World War I, when combat injuries left many soldiers sightless. Without thorough education and the means necessary to get to work on their own, many blind people were relegated to their homes, dependent on family and friends for assistance.

In that atmosphere, a group of Hoboken men joined forces in 1910 as the New Jersey Blind Men's Club, the predecessor organization of the New Jersey Blind Citizens Association. Their goal was to help sight-impaired New Jerseyans with training and other resources while building greater public awareness of their needs and abilities.

Two decades later, the club helped blind adults enjoy what many New Jerseyans consider to be a basic right: the ability to spend a week or two down the shore during the summer. Camp Happiness on Sandy Hook Bay was designed as a beachside haven where the state's sight-impaired residents could also build skills in independence and make lifelong friends. And with generous support from the Lions Club and other benefactors, campers could participate at no cost. For many campers, it was the first time they'd met other blind people, giving them a chance to share their life experiences with others who truly understood the conditions they faced every day.

Thanks to decades of work by the blind and their advocates, accessibility laws and greater public awareness, sight-impared New Jerseyans are more independent than ever, and Camp Happiness has evolved to stay relevant with its clients changing needs. That's why I was seeing so much going on there on a weekday in May. The Wobser Day Camp meets year-round, with a host of activities in fine arts, gardening, computer skills and fitness in a well-equipped gym. Addressing the special concerns the blind face, the camp also offers a peer support group as well as help in navigating medical issues and access to healthcare.

Finding Camp Happiness got me thinking about all of the great organizations that operate in small enclaves around New Jersey, largely hidden from broad view but tremendously effective in changing lives for the better. Who knows how many similar bastions of bliss we might find if we all looked?

1 comment:

  1. As a teenager, family members who were not blind volunteered here. I can remember my aunt, some friends and myself, joining a small choir to sing old songs for the men who lived there on one of the evenings that they had entertainment.


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