NIAGARA FALLS, NY - Millions of tourists visit Niagara Falls every year.
However, on Wednesday morning, there were two for whom "seeing" the Falls...might just literally be a once in a lifetime experience.
The two young ladies traveled from different parts of the country to view the world famous cataracts, which is not unusual, as the Falls draws visitors from around the world.
Not unusual as well, was their reaction when they caught their first glimpse of them from Niagara Falls State Park.
“It’s pretty cool!” exclaimed Katelyn Ferman, 15, of Wisconsin.
“No words can convey my feelings right now,” said Shana Kassel, 29, a native of California now living in Arkansas. “It's magnificent….I'm speechless, honestly," she said.
A DREAM COME TRUE:
What made the visit all the more special was that, while this was their first time seeing the Falls, it also may be the last time they ever see them in their lives…at least in the sense that most of us do.
Both Ferman and Kassel have degenerative, and unfortunately as of now, incurable visual impairments. And it is likely that at some point, perhaps in the not so distant future, they will lose their sight entirely.
That’s why they were brought to Niagara Falls by the New Jersey based Visual Experience Foundation (VEF).
With a mission somewhat similar to organizations which grant wishes to gravely ill children, the foundation grants opportunities for those who are faced with the possibility of soon not being able to see at all, a chance to see something they always wanted to.
And while they could have requested to see a variety of other places, Ferman and Kassel had Niagara Falls at the top of their list.
“I’ve always wanted to come here and it’s just amazing,” Kassel told WGRZ-TV.
WELCOME TO NIAGARA FALLS:
When contacted by the foundation, The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation saw fit to roll out the red carpet, according to VEF founder and Executive Director Michael Benson.
“We just feel totally welcome. They have been such a blessing, helping us plan, and they arranged for everything in the park to be provided (free) for the girls to experience here,” Benson said.
“We have people losing their sight who want to see what we have in our back yard,” said park spokesperson Angela P. Berti.
However, Berti also worked her contacts among other attractions outside the park, including Rainbow Helicopters, the Maid of the Mist, and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, in order to arrange for additional sightseeing opportunities for the VEF visitors.
“That’s part of why we exist at state parks, to help people like Michael and the girls,” Berti said.
MORE THAN JUST SIGHTSEEING:
There is a very important purpose to the trips sponsored by VEF beyond sightseeing, according to Benson.
It involves a means of creating a lasting vision for participants, when they arrive at their dream destination.
“We shut out eyes, and we take about two minutes and to bring up all their other senses,” explained Benson.
“We focus on experiencing the wind and the sun…the smells…the sounds of children laughing, or a bird, and of course here, the mist on our faces. Then we open our eyes and we say the words: ‘burn it’.”
In this fashion, participants, according to Benson, are able to (by replaying this in their minds) “create amazing memories beyond having physical sight, if indeed they lose their vision before technology can save it."
Of Niagara Falls in particular, Benson noted that it is “just an amazing place to burn a visual memory.”
A LASTING IMPRESSION:
“Hopefully one day they'll find a cure,” said Kassel, regarding the Retinitis Pigmentosa and Cystoid Macular Edema which struck her ten years ago, and which now threatens to completely take her sight away.
But even if they never do, as long as water flows over the Falls, she will have a lifetime of memories "burned" ….from a vision of moments frozen in time.
“Just because I'm losing my sight doesn't mean I have no vision,” said Kassel. “With all of my other senses, I’m building a vision for life and for moving forward.”
In this fashion, Kassel and Ferman will always be able to see Niagara Falls.
Perhaps in a way …that most of us never will.
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Dave Harrington.