Lia Swavely hesitated a bit before touching the dogs.

The 9-year-old petted a dog only once before coming to the Berks County Association for the Blind's Trailblazers Day Camp, a new program for children with vision impairments.

Local volunteers with Seeing Eye Inc., the Morristown, N.J.-based organization that trains puppies to become Seeing Eye dogs, brought some of their pups to the first day of camp Monday in Reading.

"Sometimes dogs are soft - not all dogs," Lia said after petting two dogs in a pavilion at the association's facility in Reading, bringing her grand total of dogs petted to three.

Camp leaders said Lia, who is nearly blind, was adopted from a home for the blind in China last summer.

Before Lia's Boyertown family adopted her, they saw a photo of her dancing with a white cane and were instantly smitten, camp leaders said.

Fleetwood teenager Abby Stutzman, who is raising a 5-month-old German shepherd, Elbert, to be a guide dog, told campers she doesn't teach Elbert tricks like "shake" and "roll over." Those commands aren't important to his future job, she explained.

"We teach him commands that he will need, like not chasing cats - that's 'leave it,'" said Abby, 13.

Karen Chandler, caseworker for the association, said much thought went into planning camp activities, which aimed to engage senses other than sight.

Campers joined for music time, built with Legos and made small doghouses out of graham crackers. They're also learning about nature and animals.

Camper Aidan Bubbenmoyer of Shillington, 11, said he loves all dogs.

He and camp helper Kyle Schermerhorn, 11, of Penn Township went up to a golden retriever named Edna and started grooming her with brushes.

"You guys can wash your hands before you go home," Lia told the boys as she watched them groom Edna.

Edna's owner, Barbara Dietrich, lead Berks County volunteer for Seeing Eye Inc., said that Edna started training as a pup to become a guide dog, but was deemed unfit because of her attention-loving personality.

A Seeing Eye dog isn't allowed to socialize whenever it feels like it, a weak point for Edna. So Edna began a career as a certified therapy dog and specializes in listening patiently while children read to her.

It's interesting to observe how kids with vision problems play differently from children with normal sight, said LoriAnn Ford, 20, assistant camp director, who is legally blind.

"It's a lot more feeling instead of looking," said Ford, who will be a junior this fall at Kutztown University.

Ford is pursuing a special education degree with a specialty in low-vision instruction. She said it's important to be patient with children who have vision impairments and be mindful of emotional struggles that come with sight disabilities.

"I had to learn to catch buses and cross streets with a cane, which helped me become more independent," Ford said. "But I also need counseling for the emotional aspects."

The children's camp ends Thursday, but the association will launch a Trailblazers Day Camp for visually impaired and blind adults next week.

Adults 18 and older will attend the camp Monday through Thursday and go on day trips, including a garden tour and ice cream outing.

Contact Beth Anne Heesen: 610-371-5084 or