Yesterday evening, a group of disabled children and their families gathered at Camp Courageous to celebrate their dream of reaching for the stars.
The group of about 15 children plan to go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., next spring. For the last year, they have been participating in Space is Special, a program that so far has sent more than 2,000 children from eight states to the camp.
They were joined at their picnic by the founder of the program, Mike Kersjes, who signed copies of his book, A Smile as Big as the Moon.
Mr. Kersjes began Space is Special while he was a special education teacher in Michigan in 1989 to show people that the children can do more than what they are given credit for, he said.
“Also, I wanted to do something that challenged their minds,” he said. “They have great imaginations.”
He chose to challenge them by teaching them about science and technology.
“We're going to learn about space,” said Micah Hetrick, 14.
The children have been practicing tasks and learning what they will need to know when they compete against groups of children without disabilities in mock space shuttle missions.
“We usually write vocabularies about space,” said Erica Martin, 13, of Sylvania.
The children spent the third week of July at Camp Courageous, where they built and launched model rockets.
That was fun, Micah said, but his favorite part of camp was swimming in the pool.
The children have had weekly swimming lessons for a year, because one of the missions at Space Camp is assembling a tetrahedron in a swimming pool.
“We practice dives and laps,” said Erica, who has autism.
The children, ages 9 to 18, have physical, mental, or learning disabilities.
At Space Camp, they will be assigned tasks that complement their abilities. While a child with dyslexia wouldn't be reading the directions, that child might be the best at another task, Carrie Demarest, who began the Toledo group, said.
In that way, they work together as a team.
“We're as strong as our weakest link,” Mrs. Demarest said.
She began the group after she saw Mr. Kersjes on television talking about Space is Special, which has teams in nearby cities.
Mrs. Demarest thought Toledo needed a program like that, based on her experiences as a parent of two disabled children and as part of the Family Information Network of Northwest Ohio, a parent-to-parent network that provides support for families with children with disabilities.
“My kids can do anything they choose to do,” she said. “They may have to work a lot harder.”
She e-mailed Mr. Kersjes and told him she wanted to start a group here. Her husband thought he would never write back. But four months later, Mr. Kersjes called her.
The Toledo group began in June, 2002. Since then, they've been working very hard to do well at Space Camp.
“I'm not going home without winning,” Mrs. Demarest said.
But winning isn't what they find most important. The program has finally given the children a goal to work toward, Isaac Demarest said.
“They're very focused on what they want to achieve,” said Tom Martin, Erica's father. “She starts to expect more out of herself.”
And knowing they can achieve one goal helps the children aim for other goals.
“She's now talking more actively about going to college,” Mr. Martin said. “Her whole horizon is opening up.”
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