At Lake Norman camp, blind adults try activities they thought weren’t possible

Campers play mini golf at a specially outfitted barn on campus. The barn, which used to house horses, includes nine holes for guests to play at any time.
Campers play mini golf at a specially outfitted barn on campus. The barn, which used to house horses, includes nine holes for guests to play at any time. N.C. Lions Inc.

For many who become visually impaired or blind, there are few adult programs available.

But Camp Dogwood, on the shore of Lake Norman in Sherrills Ford, provides weeklong retreats over the summer, giving access to many activities that are often restricted from blind adults.

“It’s fellowship, food and fun,” said Juie Baker, who has visited the camp for over a decade. “It always feels like Sunday.”

The camp hosted 753 adults last summer over its 10-week summer program on the 65-acre site. Campers stay for a week at a time in dormitories, which are styled like hotel rooms.

“When people hear the word camp they think kids in tents, and we’re the opposite of that,” said Susan King, the camp’s director since 2011.

Adults who are severely visually impaired or blind are free to choose from activities, including boating, arts classes and trips to nearby places. Many come just to socialize and relax in the many Troutman rocking chairs scattered around the campus.

“I ... call it a stationary cruise,” King said. The camp is the biggest event of the year for some, she said.

Many of the activities campers can choose, like going to an art museum or playing mini golf, aren’t normally available to blind adults.

“The assumption by a lot of people when they lose their sight, and their families too, is you can’t do that anymore,” she said. “But here, we’re like, ‘Why wouldn’t you go?’”

Recently, N.C. Lions Club volunteers converted an old barn on-site into a nine-hole mini golf course that campers can play at any time. With the new course, 500 campers were able to play mini golf, compared with 120 the summer before who had traveled to another course on buses.

The camp also built a new recreation center, with air hockey, pool, darts and exercise equipment. Many of the games are adapted for visually impaired players, with audio cues and contrasting colors that are easier to distinguish.

The camp owns two pontoon boats, one of which is outfitted to allow wheelchairs and power chairs onboard. Campers can also go tubing on the lake, the favorite activity of one 98-year-old guest who had never attempted it before visiting, King said.

“Folks are only restricted by their own attitudes,” she said. “By providing a very supportive and caring environment, they try new stuff.”

Attendees take off-campus trips to the Hickory Art Museum and the N.C. Racing Hall of Fame for special tours. A small art museum at the camp is meant to be touched, with art created for tactile and textural interest.

The vast majority of participants have lost their vision as adults, King said, so experienced campers can help those who are more recently blind.

Camp Dogwood is unique for its adults-centered programming, she said.

“Most recreational programs for disabled people are for kids,” she said. “So when those kids turn 18, these programs fall out for them, and in most cases there’s no replacement.”

Many adults return to the camp for years, including one camper who attended for 45 years, King said. Some campers form romantic relationships, said camper Ann Sumner, who knows a couple who married after meeting at the camp.

“We’re the best-kept secret in North Carolina, and we don’t want to be,” King said.

Bacon: 704-358-5725; Twitter: @erindbacon

Learn more

Visit Camp Dogwood’s website at nclionscampdogwood.org to learn more about the camp and to access the application.