Having waterfront fun

Daily Pilot

The nearly dozen children, some of them robbed of their sight since birth, helped push the model whale "Moe B. Dunes" into the Back Bay from the sandy shores of Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort.

For them, the act of touching is the umbilical cord to their sight, something the Santa Ana-based Blind Children's Learning Center teaches the children between the ages of 3 and 5.

"So many of them have never been to a bay or have never been to the ocean before, and they'll ask me, 'What is the ocean like? Is it big?'" said Sharon Mitchael, coordinator of youth services and special events for the school.

"For some," she said, "the only water they've felt is in the bathtub."

Nor have the children felt the contours of a "whale," albeit one made of Fiberglas.

But all that changed on Friday as sighted children paired off with a portion of the visually impaired or the fully blind to bid adieu to Moe B., if only for a moment, as he drifted into the bay, only to be roped in by men waiting in boats a few feet away.

"Bye, whale!" they chimed, egged on by the adults. "Bye, whale!"

Then they scrambled aboard kayaks and explored more of the bay by boat, their guides showing them what they could not see.

If there were ever an event that signals the coming of the Memorial Day weekend, it would be this one, held annually for decades at the Newport Dunes resort. Lunch was served afterward.

Jennifer Vincent, 21, a former student of the school who is legally blind, did virtually the same thing years ago.

"I remember those days," she said, recounting her childhood and early struggles with being able to see. "And if it wasn't the whale, then it was the Easter Egg hunts. Those were actually the good-ol' days."

Now she's a peer and an aide at the school, majoring in child and adolescent development at Cal State Fullerton. She's proof that life goes on and that those who have a hard time seeing forge forward.

Vincent said she sees at 20 feet what the normally-sighted see at 200 feet.

Bottom line: She can't see far. She can only see up close. And she has issues with light, she says. But other than that, all is good, and it was the school that helped her learn how to walk with a cane, encouraging her down the line that a guide dog would be waiting in the wings.

After graduation, Vincent said she'd like to become a social worker and adopt children with disabilities.

"I want to be a foster parent," she said, standing on the shores.

There are roughly 65 children who attend the school for the blind. It's been around for nearly 50 years and has six classrooms.

Pupils generally range in age from 6 months to 6 years.

At the infancy stages, the school makes a point to visit the families inside their homes, said Heather Thompson, who works in community events for the school.

"We have to conduct early intervention," she said. "Nearly 85% of what we learn early in life, we learn visually. We have to teach them how to distinguish certain objects from others and relate to them."

Teaching them Braille, of course, is essential, she said, adding the largest cause of blindness in children is having been born prematurely, otherwise known as retinopathy of prematurity.

"Today is their day," she said. "It's great to see them having so much fun."

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