Through a partnership with the Foreseeable Future Foundation, blind and visually impaired youth will soon have the opportunity to learn horsemanship.
When she first became interested in young children, Hannah Christenson had never considered the field of special education. It was only while working with Rainbows United, a service provider dedicated to enhancing the lives of children with special needs and their families, that the opportunity presented itself.
Christenson, who received an organizational leadership and program management degree from Fort Hayes State University, was recommended for an open position with Envision, Inc.’s child development center. The opportunity was intriguing, so she jumped at the chance.
That was in 2010, and Christenson now serves as Envision’s Director of Community Programs at their main headquarters in Wichita, Kansas.
“It was one of those happenstance moments,” Christenson recalled. “I’ve never looked back. Seeing the difference you can make in a child’s life to help make them feel confident, it’s no different than working with a typical child. The milestones are set up a little bit differently, but every success is to be celebrated.”
Besides Kansas, Envision has 16 supply stores on military installations in 11 states. They also have headquarters in Dallas, Texas, formerly the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind. The mission is to improve the quality of life for blind and visually impaired individuals through employment, outreach, education, rehabilitation and research.
As director of community programs, Christenson works with caregivers and families to provide programming for people of all ages. Social interactions, family support, teen and young adult programs and adult support groups are a few of the services offered.
One event that has become an annual tradition is Heather’s Camp, a four-day national summer program that offers a traditional camp experience for blind and visually impaired children in an inclusive environment. The camp, held at the local YMCA’s Camp Wood, offers hiking, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, archery, games and other sports and recreational activities. It’s an opportunity for kids ages 7-18 to make new friends and gain independence regardless of vision level.
Heather’s camp was established by a group of women from Wichita State University’s Delta Gamma Fraternity. It’s named in memory of Heather Muller, a Wichita State graduate who had a passion for helping children with special needs. This year’s camp will be held from July 30-August 2.
“Not often do children who are blind and visually impaired get to go to summer camp like a typical child would. When they come to Heather’s Camp, they are there with peers who are visually impaired, and we can provide a 1-to-1 counselor mentorship because of the volunteers we work with (from) the Wichita State Delta Gamma Collegians. They get to do everything that a typical camper would do.”
Christenson and her staff wanted to bring even more outdoor adventures to blind and visually impaired children in addition to Heather’s camp. She contacted the Foreseeable Future Foundation for help.
Initially, the idea was to offer a ranch experience in conjunction with Heather’s Camp that included a horsemanship program. However, after discussing the concept with Foreseeable Future CEO Griffin Pinkow, it was decided such a program was better suited for its own separate weekend.
“There are age restrictions for horsemanship. We wanted to have a really dynamic program. Rather than trying to tack it on to what we were already doing with Heather’s Camp, we set up a separate weekend.”
The inaugural Ranch Weekend will be offered this coming spring. Through a partnership with the Kansas State School for the Blind, 20 kids ages 12 and older will participate in a three-day event at Camp Wood.
Foreseeable Future provided funding for up to 20 campers and 20 volunteers. Campers will learn horsemanship and take part in other outdoor activities including canoeing, fishing and archery.
Christenson first partnered with Foreseeable Future several years ago for Envision’s summer golf program, which allows blind and visually impaired children ages 8 and up to participate in golf clinics each August. So working together on a ranch program with Camp Wood was an ideal fit for everyone.
“(Foreseeable Future) has such an open mind to new possibilities. It was really rewarding to get to talk to Griffin about his ideas.”
While horseback riding has always been a staple of Heather’s Camp, the addition of a ranch program that includes horsemanship provides another way for blind and visually impaired children to gain a sense of belonging.
“There are so many studies on equine therapy and having that empowerment to overcome fears, allow the horse to take you and guide you so you don’t feel so isolated and alone. It’s beautiful.”
For Christenson, seeing blind and visually impaired kids thrive through outdoor activities like Heather’s Camp and the upcoming Ranch Weekend is satisfying in ways that go beyond the obvious benefits of physical well-being.
“I see potential in all of our kids. I believe firmly that if we set the bar high, they’ll achieve it. Where we as a society can do the most damage is by lowering the bar and reducing expectations, because once you’ve reached that lower expectation, it’s hard to gear up and push yourself forward beyond somebody else’s expectations. If we tell them ‘you can do this, you can succeed’, and have expectations to follow that, we’re creating opportunities for success.”