Visually-impaired children enjoy special day at Smithville Lake

J.T. Hawthorne concentrated on his line as he fished during a special outing for visually impaired children at Smithville Lake.
J.T. Hawthorne concentrated on his line as he fished during a special outing for visually impaired children at Smithville Lake. bfrazee@kcstar.com

With a floppy hat shading her face and large sunglasses protecting her eyes, little Lyra Thompson was ready for a new experience.

Lyra, legally blind, chattered about how she had never been on a boat ride before. But before she could even get scared, she was flying across the bumpy surface of Smithville Lake in Al Sneed’s bass boat, with the wind rushing against her face.

“This is so much fun,” said Lyra, 9, who lives in Edwardsville. “I can’t believe I’ve never done this before.”

Turning to Sneed, she said, “Can we go faster?”

Sneed obliged, and pushed the throttle forward.

Lyra turned to her friend, Brooke Petro, 9, who also is vision impaired and smiled.

“Don’t be scared,” she said as Petro held on. “We’re going fast, but we’re safe.”

Sneed, a veteran bass fisherman at Smithville, smiled. This was what it was all about. New experiences.

Sneed was a volunteer for an outdoors day set up by Alphapointe, a Kansas City non-profit that specializes in caring for the visually impaired. Not only is the organization one of the nation’s largest employers of visually-impaired adults, it also provides programs and rehabilitation designed to support children who are blind or sight challenged.

Getting the kids outdoors on Sept. 26 certainly fit that goal. Volunteers such as Sneed took the kids for boat rides and fishing, then the children were treated to a cookout, crafts and games. From the squeals of excitement each time the boat bounced over a wave or a fish was landed, it was obvious the special day was being viewed — however hazy the children’s eyesight — as a giant success.

“To see these kids get so excited about things we take for granted, that’s what makes this special,” Sneed said. “A lot of these kids have a hard time seeing the things we do. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have fun being out in a boat or going fishing.

“They’re just kids when they’re out here.”

That’s the way Sharon Brown, manager of events for Alphapointe, views things. She smiled as the kids returned from their adventures and talked excitedly.

“All of these kids are mainstream with their education,” she said. “But it’s great for them to get together with others kids who face the same challenges as they do.

“We try to introduce them to things they didn’t think they could do. Sometimes, you can just see their fear melt away. There’s a feeling of accomplishment after they’ve done something.”

That was obvious last weekend when a group of about 20 kids was introduced to the outdoors. They had to be led by a volunteer to their seat in a boat. And that adult was at their side as the boat flew across the water. But in a sense, the children were doing this on their own.

“We try to empower them,” said Krista Manke, another Alphapointe employee who is visually impaired herself. “It’s just thrilling to see how far they can come in just an afternoon.

“You can just see their self-confidence grow.”

Aaron Ituarte, 13, of Springfield, Mo., is an example.

When he was led into Sneed’s boat, he wore a worried expression. But once the boat started speeding across the water, he faced into the wind and smiled broadly.

That smile grew even larger when Sneed pulled the boat onto a point and baited Ituarte’s hook with a night crawler. Ituarte felt a tug, set the hook and felt the frenzied struggle of a fish trying to escape.

He reeled his catch to the surface and Sneed lifted it into the boat. It was a small drum, not the most sought-after species in the fishing world.

But to Ituarte, it was a prized catch.

“Way to go, buddy,” Sneed said. “You played that one like a pro.”

Ituarte smiled and resumed fishing.

His friend, J.T. Hawthorne, said, “He doesn’t talk much, but I can tell he’s happy.”

Hawthorne was also happy. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was only 13 months old, he has undergone a series of operations in his 16 years. That tumor has taken away part of his eyesight, but not his great attitude.

He was reveling in a day on the water, being with other kids who face challenges.

“I love fishing,” he said. “When I’m out here, I’m just like anyone else.

“I’m just waiting to reel in a fish.”

To reach outdoors editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to bfrazee@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter@fishboybrent.

Overcoming barriers to the outdoors

Fishermen and hunters with disabilities have access to the outdoors in Missouri and Kansas.

Federal, state and local programs give children and adults alike special opportunities through accessible hunting blinds, fishing piers, programs and special events. Here are a few of the highlights. (This list is not meant to be inclusive.)

▪ Many reservoirs in Missouri and Kansas have special wheelchair-accessible fishing piers for people with disabilities.

▪ Many of Missouri’s 15 conservation areas managed for waterfowl have disabled-accessible hunting blinds. Hunters may reserve disabled-accessible blinds using the Quick Draw system at Eagle Bluffs, Grand Pass, and Otter Slough. On all other areas, hunters must call the area to reserve a disabled-accessible blind. When arriving at an area to claim a blind, hunters must show a Hunting Method Exemption or Department of Revenue hangtag. For additional information, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/9631.

▪ A deer season for hunters with disabilities, run at the same time as the youth season, is held in Kansas each September.

▪ Special fishing trips and hunts to helped disabled veterans of the armed services are held by various organizations throughout Missouri and Kansas. In Missouri, KAMO holds fishing trips, deer hunts and turkey hunts for the disabled vets. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has one of the state’s oldest deer hunts for people with disabilities at Smithville Lake each fall. In Kansas, organizers hold an annual deer hunt for the disabled at Marion Reservoir each September.

▪ A Fishing Has No Boundaries fishing trip, part of a national program, is held at El Dorado Reservoir in Kansas each year.

▪ In recent years, volunteers have joined to put on a deer hunt for deaf children at a Boy Scouts camp near Truman Lake.

Brent Frazee; bfrazee@kcstar.com