Minnesota News

A new camp makes the outdoors accessible for deaf, deafblind, hard-of-hearing kids

A boy raises his hand
Wilderness Inquiry camper Hamza raises his hand during a group activity at a camp for children who are deaf and hard of hearing at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Riyan Hassan has spent the past two days playing in the August sun, running around Fort Snelling and exploring nature along the Mississippi River with new friends who speak the same language she does: American Sign Language, or ASL.

“I like this camp because it’s so much fun!”

It’s Riyan’s first time at a camp like this, designed for youth who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing. She doesn’t have friends outside camp who know ASL, so it’s been exciting.

“Because I like people sign,” she says.

Christina Skahen, a former teacher for deaf and hard of hearing kids who is volunteering as one of many interpreters at the camp, jumps in.

“You like it when people sign?” Skahen signs and says aloud. Riyan nods.

“Is it feel more comfortable to talk when it’s in sign?” Skahen asks.

“Yes,” Riyan says.

Two girls play a game
Kayli removes a lifebuoy from around fellow camper Riyan during a dress-up game during day camp at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minnesota used to have more camps for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing youth, but they have shut down over the years for various reasons — grants ending, trouble finding staff — leaving behind a dearth of programming, according to Riss Leitzke, the accessibility program coordinator for Wilderness Inquiry, the nonprofit hosting the camp.

As a result, Leitzke said these youth are often isolated during school breaks.

“It's difficult for kids who grow up without language access, and they don't have the ability to express themselves in their home lives. They don't have a safe space to become a person who can express themselves fully,” they said, signing with interpretation by staff interpreter Ali Phelan.

A person signs next to a group of campers
Wilderness Inquiry program coordinator Riss Leitzke signs with interpreter Ali Phelan (not visible) during day camp at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In contrast, ASL is a primary language at the camp, though not everyone is fluent. Some campers are just learning how to sign; others might have gone to deaf schools where they learned ASL from the start. Some are deaf, while others might have cochlear implants or some hearing. Here, interpreters bridge communication, transforming words between signed and spoken language.

For Leitzke, who is deafblind, community makes all the difference. They grew to love the outdoors as a teen years ago after attending a camp with youth who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing.

They said they wanted to create a youth camp as a way to not only introduce others to the outdoors, but help uplift Deaf identities.

“We want to break that negative experience that's far too common with deaf, deafblind, hard of hearing folks, and we want to make sure that that experience spreads all over.”

Two people sign with each other
Camper Kayli (right) signs with Wilderness Inquiry outdoor leader Alina Hortillosa at a day camp for children who are deaf and hard of hearing at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Creating access to the outdoors

Wilderness Inquiry’s work building community and outdoor skills for people from all walks of life dates to the 1970s.

Its founders had been taking students on camping trips when the ongoing debate fired up in 1977 around whether to allow motor vehicles and logging in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. According to the organization’s lore, then-U.S. Sen. Wendell Anderson of Minnesota reportedly said “the handicapped, elderly and women” could not enjoy the outdoors without motors, prompting Wilderness Inquiry leaders to prove otherwise. They took two people who used wheelchairs and two deaf people to the Boundary Waters “to demonstrate that anyone can enjoy the wilderness on its own terms,” according to the Wilderness Inquiry website.

Since then, Wilderness Inquiry has expanded to help all types of marginalized communities access the outdoors.

Three people paddling on a river.
Laron Lewis (front) with his daughters Justeen, 13 (not visible), and Jalonda, 8 (in yellow), is the lead paddler in a large voyager canoe with guides from the Wilderness Inquiry during an excursion on the Mississippi River June 19.
David Joles | Star Tribune 2010

“The outdoors is for everyone, and so we really want to break down those barriers so that everyone has the same opportunity to experience it,” said Anne Strootman, who manages participants and volunteers for Wilderness Inquiry programs.

Strootman said that might look like helping people feel safe, or providing support with adaptive solutions or scholarships for outdoor trips.

Today, Wilderness Inquiry offers outdoor education and excursions for camping, paddling and more across the U.S. and world.

In recent years, the organization has focused on getting underrepresented communities outdoors through their affinity program, featuring group travel where trip leaders and participants share the same identity. The affinity trips exist for people who identify as neurodiverse, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ or women.

The affinity program expanded to include trips led by and for deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing folks last year — Leitzke helped organize basecamp and backcountry trips to the Boundary Waters for adults and a family paddle day on the St. Croix River.

The August day camp was Wilderness Inquiry’s first program geared towards deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing youth, drawing around 25 students from 2nd through 8th grades.

Camp encourages ASL use

Five out of every 1,000 Minnesota children ages 3-17 are deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. That might be a result of genetic causes, injury or illness.

Having access to a language is life-changing for them. Health experts report children with hearing loss fall behind their hearing peers in communication, cognition, reading, and social-emotional development without opportunities to learn language.

Yet, they don’t always get it.

A sitting person signs while people hold hands
Ali Phelan, a staff interpreter at Wilderness Inquiry, signs during a group activity at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Leitzke said one factor is some people resist learning ASL. People might not have exposure to it or their doctor might instead encourage cochlear implant surgery, which allows people to hear some sound and learn to speak.

It’s part of why Leitzke valued having ASL at the camp. They partnered with different organizations to plan programming — Deaf Equity; the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind, & Hard of Hearing; and Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa – and get Deaf adult volunteers to serve as role models.

John Fechter, a board member with Deaf Equity, called it a mutually beneficial experience. The organization works in part to give kids full access to communication. As a deaf person himself, he said the reason he’s been able to work and travel across the country is that his parents learned ASL, giving him access to language. He recalls growing up as the only deaf kid in town and having his world expanded when he went to a similar camp.

“I see myself in these campers and so I want them to graduate. I want them to be successful,” he signed, interpreted by Skahen.

Fellow board member Migdalia Rogers said their presence as volunteers also shows parents that the Deaf community is welcoming and their children can participate in various activities. She serves as a Deaf Mentor outside the camp, helping parents understand how to support their deaf or hard of hearing child. She said many parents are fearful or unsure about what’s best, particularly when it’s all a new experience for them, and Deaf advocates want to help bridge communication barriers with their children.

“We’re trying to actively do something to disrupt the chain, disrupt what’s happening and provide more accessibility through sign language and through play with kids,” she signed, with interpretation from Skahen.

And it was successful.

Parent Farhiyo Mohamed brought her two daughters to the camp: Nimo, who was born hard of hearing, and Rahma, so she can become more fluent in sign. Mohamed said it’s been a challenge at home: Nimo will come home from school with so much to say, but only Rahma understands everything she’s saying.

Mohamed said it wasn’t a priority before – sign language shocked her and she didn’t feel comfortable learning ASL. Now, seeing all the ASL-speaking adults, she’s determined everyone in the family learns.

“I wish I speak sign language how they interpreted with them, but I can’t. But I will, to learn. That’s my hope,” she said.

A girl wearing a headscarf passes a hula hoop
Wilderness Inquiry camper Riyan (center) passes a hula hoop to Rahma (left) at a day camp for children who are deaf and hard of hearing in Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘You can become comfortable in the outdoors’

The last day of camp kicks off with everyone circled up in a big open field – camp leaders, volunteers, interpreters and students. After a land acknowledgement, an outdoor leader asks students to reflect on the past days.

Some remember the lesson on pollinators. Campers had carried bean bags from one hula hoop to another, mimicking a bees’ journey from a flower to its hive. The following day, the group paddled in canoes on the Mississippi River.

“Even though I was a little bit scared, it was helpful to my ego to be able to finish it and enjoy the trip,” replies one camper in ASL.

“We need to take care of the land and the pets and the animals here,” signs another.

A boy catches a yellow bean bag
Camper Alan catches a bean bag during a group activity at day camp in Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The day continues with a series of team competitions called “Olympic games.” To start, the entire group clasps hands and collaborates to move a hula hoop across their bodies and around the circle. Campers later pair up for a bean bag toss, before moving on to a mixed relay race. In one challenge, teams would simulate rescuing someone, who is wearing a life jacket, from underwater.

According to Leitzke, outdoor spaces can pose a myriad of challenges for deaf and deafblind people, like not having maps with tactile information, physical markers showing forks in paths or interpretation for parks programming. They said the shared social experience alone can have a great impact in making the outdoors accessible, however.

“It’s our responsibility and our job here to tell people ‘No, you can have that experience and you can become comfortable in the outdoors,’” signed Leitzke.

Two kids use water to cool off
Campers Muad (left) and Hamza cool off during a break at Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Adjustments to make the outdoors accessible can be simple. For example, primary outdoor leader Ryan Stumbo said putting a footstool in the water so campers can walk straight onto canoes helps deafblind people or people with mobility issues.

For Stumbo, who is hard of hearing, one of the most rewarding moments was seeing a student who is still learning sign blossom, going from being shy to expressing she had a great time in ASL.

Now solid friends, the campers giggle together on break, running around squirting water at each other.

“It's a blast, like I've really loved doing it,” said Stumbo. “And this is our first year and we're looking to continue to grow and, you know, outreach into different areas and maybe do like some type of extended trip with kids. And so this is kind of like our pilot, we're trying to test things out, and it's gone really well.”

A boy is sprayed by a spray bottle
Hunter is sprayed by a fellow camper during a hot day at summer camp on Picnic Island in Fort Snelling State Park on Aug. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News