GARY — Standing on the dock at Marquette Park Lagoon, wearing a lifejacket, paddle in hand, Francoise McHerron said she wasn't nervous.

She hadn't kayaked since she was a kid in summer camp.

She's also blind.

"I'm excited," said the 25-year-old from Crown Point. "I love water. I like to swim. I was on the swimming team when I was little."

McHerron was participating in a recent event to teach kayaking to blind Northwest Indiana residents. She attends the Blind Social Center in Gary, which hosted the activity with Causes for Change, Miller Neighborhood Spotlight and the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.

"Water is the great equalizer," said Zully JF Alvarado, founder and CEO of Causes for Change, a nonprofit that works to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. "No one knows I have a wheelchair when I'm in a kayak."

It's also about getting people with disabilities out of the house, into nature.

"Depression is a major issue for people with disabilities because of lack of transportation and access," Alvarado said. "People with disabilities become prisoners in our own minds and own homes. This is a battle we're going to combat."

McHerron got ready for her paddling excursion. She traded places in a orange, red and yellow kayak with Marilyn Wynn, of Gary, a volunteer with the Blind Social Center who is legally blind herself.

"I'm ready to go back. I'm ready to go again," Wynn exclaimed, stepping back onto the dock.

McHerron sat down in the kayak.

"How does it feel?" asked Connie Blair, co-director of the Blind Social Center.

"It feels good," said McHerron, characteristically understated.

Blair noted that most of the time her rookie kayakers aren't as cool and collected as McHerron.

"At first they're a little nervous," she said. "Once they see how calm the water is, it calms them and they focus on the ride."

Wynn said she was scared the first time she went kayaking. She's not anymore.

"I really like doing it solo because that's, like, control," she said, adding that her favorite parts are "the peace, the tranquility."

Moments later, Blair's husband and co-director of the Blind Social Center, Tony, paddled up to the dock in his kayak. He also is blind.

"This way?" he said, waving his left hand over the water, the dock to his right.

"The other way," someone said.

"Why don't I want to go this way?" the affable Blair joked, his hand still over the water.

He paddled in front of the kayak after riding in the back last time.

"We have a great navigator," he noted. "I'd be across to Chicago without her."

"This is beautiful," said Wynn, looking out over the lagoon.

The breeze rippled the water, bouncing the lily pads like kids in a wave pool. The wind made a hushing sound as it blew the vegetated trees. Clouds floated past, providing occasional cover from the blazing sun.

"It's really nice, isn't it?" Blair said.

Kenneth Nesbitt, a board member of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, said he volunteers for these types of events to witness the reaction from the kayakers.

"I had one person who was visually impaired tell me once that when she's out in the kayak, she feels the most in control she's felt since she gave away her driver's license," he said.

McHerron returned from her ride, all smiles.

"Get it, girl!" "Way to go, Fran!" people on the deck yelled out.

"That was fun," she said.

"Will you do it again, Fran?" asked Connie Blair.

"Yep," McHerron said. "Yeah, that was fun. I gotta do that again."

She said paddling was easier than she thought it would be; the breeze helped.

"I gotta do this again, though," she said.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.