Campers Take Flight on the Sea and High in Sky

By JAMES D'AMBROSIO

It was a perfect early morning on Vineyard Haven harbor. All was quiet but for a few gulls arguing over a crab. White-hulled boats glistened upon the glassy emerald surface as a light breeze painted ripples here and there. And the clear blue sky invited flight for anyone willing to accept the offer. Nineteen-year-old Jabberwocky camper Rebekah Larko was more than ready, and as the large red, white and blue silken chute filled with air above the deck of MV Oceansports's sleek parasailing craft, Rebekah was lifted from the confines of her wheelchair and flew like a bird.

"Bekah is the kind of person who likes to do everything and anything," said John Knower, a camp counselor in his eighth year at Camp Jabberwocky. "She was the first to get on all the rides at the agricultural fair, and she never stopped smiling and laughing."

And so it was aloft. As Rebekah rose 600 feet above the earth, her palsy-tightened limbs relaxed, her arms gently waving in the breeze. Her smile shone as everyone in the boat cheered her on. She was free.

"This is what these kids were talking about a year later from when they first tried it," said John's father, Jack Knower, a special education teacher who has been with Jabberwocky for the past 23 years. "A lot of these kids can't move around and need assistance at all times. When you look up in the sky and see them suspended from this beautiful chute, relaxed and floating, they're moving along without being pushed around or carried or lifted by someone. It's simply an amazing gift for them."

As Rebekah flew through the air with the greatest of ease, jet skis passed by and circled the boat. Jabberwocky campers were safely sandwiched between an experienced driver and a counselor sitting behind. Uncontrollable laughter rang out as the water machines glided along, pushing spray up and away to the sides.

Capt. Mark Clarke, owner and operator of MV Oceansports, a big man with a big heart, laughed loudly amid the collective joy all around him as he piloted the boat. This was his idea two years ago, and the results were more than he ever expected.

"For this brief period of time, they're doing what everybody else can do," said Mr. Clarke. "To see them up there, or flying on the water on the jet skis, is so amazing to me, I can't even put it into words. I just feel so good for them."

Mr. Clarke is the son of the late John Clarke, skipper of the well-known Alden, Laissez Faire. Mr. Clarke said his father used to take the Jabberwocky campers sailing on his wooden boat, and he feels compelled to carry on the tradition. Mr. Clarke has personal experience with handicapped persons, having an older brother with epilepsy. "I know what it means for these people to get out there and do something exciting that frees them from whatever physical limitations they may have," he said.

Even after taking more than 200,000 people up in a parasailing chute without incident, including a 90-year-old woman and a few young men making marriage proposals, this is the moment Mr. Clarke says he looks forward to all year. "I plan to do this for Jabberwocky for as long as they accept my invitation to fly," he said.

Rebekah returned to the deck and her harness was unclipped from the chute. Mr. Clarke carried her gently to the cushioned seat and into the arms of her counselor, Jen Doubilet. Rebekah was writhing with excitement and motioned to communicate. Ms. Doubilet held up a see-through plexiglass board with a blue alphabet, and Rebekah spelled words and sentences with her eyes as Ms. Doubilet called them out.

"I felt like a bird," said Rebekah. "I was so relaxed up there. I want to do it again."

Twelve-year-old Michael Delson wasn't so sure he wanted to do it at all. Admitting that he flew to Italy at 27,000 feet, he said he wasn't scared then because the plane had windows. "There aren't any windows here," said Michael slowly, his speech impaired by cerebral palsy.

"I'm afraid of heights. I don't think I can do this," he added as he watched 20-year-old Michael Anderson clipped into the chute and ready to fly. "I'm Michael Anderson," he yelled out. "And I'm going flying!"

As the camper was lifted high into the air, the younger Michael readied his harness with newfound motivation. "If Michael Anderson can do it, I can do it!" he said. And after a generous flight, Michael Delson returned to earth with new purpose. "I loved it!" he called out. "I love this camp. It's the best ever. I could see the whole Island except I couldn't see the chocolate factory. I want to go up a million and one times again!"

After several more campers took to the skies, flying high and skimming the waves, the boat and watercraft returned to shore. The Jabberwocky kids were helped off the vessels and back into their bright red bus.

Twenty-year-old Kara Johansen lingered in her chair, and signaled her counselor for the letter board. "This is the best part of summer," she said. "Jabberwocky is the best place in the world for me because people see me for me, and not for my wheelchair. I flew today. And I was very tall."