The fact is, blind children -- for that matter, blind people of all ages -- can do much more than many of us realize. All they need is an opportunity, a little help and maybe some faith.
Last week, a tennis camp for blind children was held at Snohomish High School. Organized by 17-year-old varsity tennis player Gabrielle Wilson as her senior project, the event turned out to be more meaningful than perhaps she or anyone else imagined.
In five afternoon sessions, these sightless youngsters had the chance to swing rackets, hit balls and, most importantly, have a whole lot of fun. Sure, they will never be as good as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or the Williams sisters, but so what?
Because what truly matters is that for a few precious hours, and for a few truly joyous kids, the improbable became the possible.
Nine-year-old Sarathia Dickenson of Snohomish has been blind since birth, the result of retinopathy of prematurity (she was born at 23 weeks). But despite her disability, she loves being active with hobbies that include skating and snowboarding.
And, as of last week, tennis.
"She's been waiting and waiting and waiting for this," said her mother, Kimberly Dickenson. "All she wants is the chance to try it. Because the worst thing that'll happen is that she won't like it. And at least she got to play with the other kids.
"When somebody is nice enough to put something like this on, it means everything. Because any day she gets to do stuff like this is a great day."
Sure enough, "I had a lot of fun, I really did," Sarathia Dickenson said with a grin. The best part, she decided, was learning to hit backhand shots. "I am," she announced proudly, "a pro at that."
Blind tennis is similar to regular tennis with some necessary modifications. Most obvious is the ball, which is larger than a standard tennis ball and made of foam rubber. The ball is sliced into halves and the center is hollowed out to insert a ping-pong ball with BBs inside. The two halves are then put back together and held in place with cloth medical tape.
The sound of the rattling BBs allows blind players to know where the ball is. Also, foam rubber balls do not travel as far or as fast as standard tennis balls, which gives blind players the necessary time to react.
There are a few rule changes, too. For example, the ball is allowed to bounce two or even three times (depending on the degree of blindness), instead of just once as in standard tennis. Every bounce causes sounds that help blind players locate the ball.
Other modifications include smaller rackets, a smaller court and a lower net. Lines on the court sometimes have string beneath duct tape so players can feel -- either with their feet or their fingers -- to know where they are.
Wilson got the idea for the camp because her "cousin" is Hamoody Jauda-Smith, an 8-year-old Iraqi boy who came to the United States for medical treatment after being blinded by gunfire during an attack on his family by an opposing religious faction. He ended up staying in this country and today lives in Snohomish with guardians Julie Robinett-Smith and Randy Smith, whose niece is Wilson.
Young Hamoody loves sports of all kinds, "and he wanted to learn to play tennis," Robinett-Smith said. "So I think that's kind of what got the ball rolling."
Gabrielle and her mother Joan Wilson, both avid tennis players, started doing research about teaching the game to blind children. Gabrielle then made a presentation to the Snohomish Lion's Club and ended up with a $500 grant from the Snohomish County Sight and Hearing Foundation for t-shirts and equipment.
Other Snohomish High School students, including several from the boys and girls tennis teams, pitched in to serve as camp coaches.
The goal, Gabrielle Wilson said, "was to introduce the kids to the sport of tennis. To help them get some of the basic skills down, like forehands and backhands, so that by the end of the week they have an idea of how to play. And then if they want to continue, they can."
For the youngsters, hitting the ball after gentle underhand tosses from coaches was a challenge, even with verbal help ("Toss … swing!). There were frequent misses, but that just made the occasional successes even more thrilling.
"I think they enjoyed it," Gabrielle Wilson said. "They'd smile when we'd say, 'Great shot!' So they were happy."
No doubt about it, according to Hamoody. He is a bright, energetic and cheerful boy who seems to enjoy a lot of things. But for him, the chance to play tennis was about as good as it gets.
"It was," he said, smiling broadly, "100 percent fun."
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