The first Camp Abilities Florida Ranch Weekend provided blind and visually impaired students a camping adventure they’ll never forget.
After experiencing the thrill of being on a working ranch, Foreseeable Future Foundation CEO Griffin Pinkow wanted other blind and visually impaired children to learn the importance of horsemanship and being outdoors.
There was just one problem. The cost of such activities was often too high for many of those families. That’s when the idea of funding ranch camps began to take shape.
“It’s great for the community to experience the outdoors and the different activities that come along with being outside,” Pinkow said. “This has proven to be successful so far and it’s great for people that have challenges that might not be able to be that active. These individuals can still experience nature and the outdoors.
Over the past year, Foreseeable Future has sponsored several ranch camps around the country. Camp Abilities Florida held a Ranch Weekend October 27-29 at Diamond Oaks Farm and Dude Ranch in Ocala, Florida.
Known for its horseback riding, lodging, RV park and horse boarding, Diamond Oaks sits just off Highway 75 in Ocala, Florida. The farm once served as a place to breed and sell thoroughbreds, but is now the go-to destination for horseback and carriage riding for children and adults alike.
“The farm was, initially, a part of a 100-acre plot,” explained Jami Walker, who has served as the farm’s operation and finance manager for the past seven years. “Then it got (divided) up maybe 50 years ago. When we came, we re-envisioned the farm as lodging, horseback riding and carriage rides.”
Last summer, Pinkow reached out to Camp Abilities Florida founder and director Jennifer Wickham and asked her to help coordinate a horse camp. Wickham, a teacher for the visually impaired for schools in Nassau County, established the Florida camp after attending Camp Abilities Brockport. For eight years, she and her staff have provided sports and recreational opportunities to blind children in North Florida.
Wickham was happy to help with the horse camp. She contacted Walker, who agreed to host the event at the farm.
A total of 10 children ages 8-18 attended, accompanied by their parents. Wickham’s family came along to volunteer, including her husband John, her sister Kimberly Degelmann and Camp Abilities assistant director Sara David. Some families stayed in campers, while others chose to use the farm’s cottage house. Wickham and her family provided meals for the children and their families.
On the first day, campers were given a tour of the farm before diving into learning about horses and how to care for them. After dinner, they were treated to a movie before turning in.
Following an outdoor breakfast the next morning, the kids went horseback riding, ate lunch and took a trip to Silver Springs State Park. Located just east of Ocala, the park features 4,000 acres of historic structures, peaceful gardens, a museum and one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. It has been a landmark destination for residents and tourists since the 1870s.
“We did a glass bottom boat tour and then went kayaking,” Wickham said.
After returning to the farm, everyone was treated to a carriage ride before gathering around a campfire for s’mores and another movie. Campers and their families all headed home following breakfast the next morning.
Many of the kids had never been on a horse before, but Wickham didn’t encounter any trepidation when it came to riding.
“They were all pretty excited. They really seemed to enjoy it. Most of them I heard back from said that they wanted to do it again and they couldn’t wait for our next event.”
The Diamond Oaks staff assisted with the equine instruction and provided support for the campers and volunteers. While Walker had not previously worked with blind and visually impaired individuals, the experience left a lasting impression on her.
“It was impactful to me. It puts a whole (new) lens on your life. I felt like the children had great attitudes. It was interesting to see the difference in personalities show itself in how a child approached their visual impairment. I learned a lot.”
While there are no specific plans for a future horse camp, Wickham would love the chance if the opportunity presented itself.
“I would absolutely do it again. I thought it went very smoothly. There were little things I would tweak but I would work with (Diamond Oaks) again. They were wonderful.”
Walker also believes the camp was a big success and welcomes the chance to work with Camp Abilities or other similar groups in the future.
“We’d be very open to it. “It’s neat to be able to give to these children and their guardians, to give something on so many levels.”