Happy Campers: CareersPLUS students enjoy Society summer camp

In 2002, Brandie Kubel helped create the retreat model for our Senior IMPACT Project. Twenty years later, she used that same model to create a summer camp for 10 teens and young adults ages 16-20 in our CareersPLUS program that she directs.

“I wanted to give them a chance to learn foundational blindness skills and then apply those skills during the week,” Brandie said. “It turns out the model for the Senior IMPACT Project retreat really works no matter the age of participants.”

She found an outstanding partner in the Hampton Inn and Suites by Sacramento State. Not only did they host everyone at a discount and provide support, they offered breakfast for staff and volunteers.

“We could not have done this without the wonderful team at Hampton Inn and Suites,” Brandie said. “We were close to light rail and Arden Fair Mall. Plus, this was a chance for the campers to practice social etiquette in a hotel, as well as travel around the facility and communicate with staff in an environment that was small enough to be unintimidating.”

The five-day camp began on a Monday evening with an introduction in the hotel lobby and a chance to get accommodated to the facility.

One camper named Patricia said, “We had only ever met through Zoom, so I was really happy to meet everyone. It was a moment of like, wow finally, am I dreaming?”

Tuesday, they hit the ground running with an orientation and mobility lesson on getting to light rail and around the station. The group went shopping at Arden Fair Mall, where they learned about customer service, reading braille signage, riding escalators, managing the food court and more. Then they practiced taking a ride share back to the hotel. Patricia said she especially enjoyed shopping at Bath and Body Works and trying orange chicken at a Thai restaurant.

The next morning after breakfast, campers took the light rail to Society for the Blind’s office, touring the facility and learning how to cook. Together, they made turkey spaghetti, a garden salad and dessert. They talked about finances, budgeting and shopping for ingredients.

“It was a whole lesson in learning to be independent,” Brandie said. “There was a lot of discussion about positive blindness philosophy and advocating for ourselves.”

That night, the whole group – campers and volunteers alike – celebrated with a karaoke dance party. Volunteer Robert got up and sang first, and then Brandie took the stage singing Reba McEntire and Stevie Nicks. Patricia also performed, saying she messed up the lyrics to the song, and her throat hurt afterward, but she had a great time.

“We broke the ice and let them know it wasn’t about singing perfectly, it was just about cutting loose and having fun,” Brandie said. “After we sang, it was a free for all, and we all had a blast.”

Thursday, the male campers went home, and the ladies gathered for a day together at the hotel to focus on issues that impact them.

‘When we first planned the camp, only ladies had signed up, but then word spread and guys started signing up,” Brandie said. “That was great, but I wasn’t going to cancel our ladies’ day.”

The female campers had a free morning to relax, and in the afternoon, they gathered to talk about topics that impact young women, such as grooming, dating and relationships with moms. That evening, some of the group stayed at the hotel talking while others went shopping at Target, and then they had dinner delivered to the hotel. Friday morning, everyone headed home.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for the participants to bond and build great friendships and support connections that will last a lifetime,” Brandie said. “I was a blind kid growing up all alone and didn’t know any other blind kids, so I felt isolated and alone. It was great to see these teens and young adults have each other, and I was thrilled to facilitate that.”

Another camper named Natalie said, “The camp was a lot of fun. I liked connecting with each other, and I also really liked reconnecting with an acquaintance who went to the same school that I went to. We are now becoming good friends because we shared a room together.”

Brandie said the retreat also gave them confidence and the chance to think for themselves and make mistakes without anyone interfering with their learning moments.

Patricia said, “For me, camp was a testament to the fact that an independent life does exist, and it’s more fun when you’re exploring without parents. It’s a different way of learning versus someone sitting you down and lecturing you. We were moving around in the mall asking for assistance, and it was more engaging that way.”

Brandie hopes to offer this camp annually, but some of the participants want to see it offered even more often. Natalie came up with an idea for a winter camp where participants could learn how to use the oven to make holiday cookies, build a gingerbread house, make ornaments and wrap presents.

“This experience really showed them they can do more than they thought they could do,” Brandie said. “For some it was a wake-up call and made them realize maybe there’s more out there than they thought. My hope was to meet each and every one of them where they’re at. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and no matter the age from child to senior, you just have to meet people where they’re at on their journey. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”