A tactile experience at Besser Museum

A keenly serious student, Greg Botting of Ionia couldn’t help but interject his own observations on Native American culture during a give-and-take exchange Tuesday at the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. Presenter Pete Prince of Alpena listened carefully to Botting’s comments, nodded his head in agreement and then added his own twist on the subject matter.

Other participants in the group also engaged in a lively dialogue with Prince, Dr. Richard Clute and Besser Museum Executive Director Chris Witulski as they handled many 2,000 year-old artifacts passed around for their inspection.

What made this museum outing unusual for all involved is that the participants, ages 11 to 18, are visually impaired. They have been spending the better part of week at Camp Chickagami as part of an Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind experience designed to enrich their lives and expand their knowledge.

“The camp has really been providing them with a fun experience,” said retired Alpena Public Schools teacher Jo Ann Pilarski, who wholeheartedly champions this cause for kids as she herself is vision impaired. “Here they are not the odd-man out. They have so much to relate to with one another and it helps their confidence to grow.”

Pilarski served for a number of years on the Michigan Commission for the Blind, and it was through that connection that she met parents who were frustrated with what schools were unable to offer their vision impaired children. The parents decided to do something about it by starting Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, she said.

“They were trying to level the playing field for kids in school,” Pilarski said. “This group of parents started a summer camp with a lot of science and math focus, and skills of blindness that you just don’t get in Michigan schools.”

While typically the camps have been held at a dedicated site in Grand Rapids, in recent summers the program has moved to other locations around the state, including last year at Mackinac Island, where Pilarski was able to go and help as a volunteer.

“Mackinac Island really came together and honored these kids,” Pilarski said. “I thought at the time, Alpena can do this too. We have a lot to offer.”

She followed up on those impressions, started planning a similar camp experience for this summer and then sought local support. She said the community, including clubs, churches and individuals as well as places like the Besser Museum, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Alpena Plaza Pool, provided outstanding support.

“It’s been a great story of our community as well as these kids,” Pilarski said.

Tuesday’s schedule of activities featured Native American studies at the museum where the participants were given many tactile opportunities to handle artifacts. They also did related beading, weaving and carving activities, along with going on a fossil dig at the museum’s outdoor Lafarge Fossil Park.

In the afternoon, the kids were headed for a hike on Sportsman’s Island, followed by swimming at Plaza Pool. The evening schedule included a drumming experience back at Camp Chick with Dr. Avery Aten and Dr. Greg Adamus bringing in a variety of drums for the kids to try out and use.

“Everyone who has met the kids and done something with them has been so blessed, and the kids are great examples of how being blind doesn’t mean life is over by any means,” Pilarski said. “They are true ambassadors.”