"Joni & Friends Camp Experience" June 18, 2013

For the last six months, we’ve been waiting for something positive or inspirational to write about on our blog, but as you can see from the last date we posted, not much has materialized lately. While we’ve been blessed to see steady growth in Hannah’s development, we’ve also faced a lot of challenges this past winter and spring. Each week, we’ve had therapy sessions for three different kids, averaging 6-10 appointments per week, and during this time, we’ve also squeezed-in two surgeries, made continual out-of-town trips for doctors appointments, attended lots of IEP meetings and frequently had to battle with insurance providers. Needless to say, it has been a full-time job for both of us. Considering Hannah’s continuing sleep issues on top of all that, we’ve found ourselves 100% exhausted and emotionally drained on a daily basis, but then this last week happened. More specifically, God worked through the Joni & Friends Family Retreat to do something great in our family! 

We’d always known that Joni & Friends camps existed, but neither of us had ever given it much thought. Our assumption had been that they were standard church camps with a handful of “differently-abled” campers mixed in. We were SO wrong. Thankfully, throughout the past year, God brought various people our way who began providing first-hand testimonials and recommendations, so we finally decided we should look into it. On a whim, we called the Joni & Friends offices, thinking we could inquire about next year’s camp... but God had different plans. In something that can only be described as a miracle, they not only had a last-minute opening the day we called (extremely rare only three weeks before the camp), but they were also able to help us with some much-needed scholarship funds! By the end of the call, we were fully registered… and yet, we still weren’t sure what to expect. We had been told that there was something uniquely different about Joni & Friends camps, but weren’t quite sure what it was.

Starting a couple weeks before camp, we got our first taste of things to come when the phone rang one afternoon; on the other end of the line was a long-time Joni & Friends (or J.A.F.) attendee who simply called to pray for us... right then and there! It was a very moving experience to have a perfect stranger care that much! Later in the week, we had another surprise when we received a huge packet in the mail. The staff had compiled color booklets that were customized for each of our children with words, pictures and symbols to explain exactly what they would experience throughout the week. (In the special needs community, these are called “social stories” and are very common for helping children cope with anxiety over new situations.) The books were a huge hit with the kids, and really made a difference in relieving some strong anxieties in one of our kids. Finally, the packet included invitations to two special events during the camp: a women’s pampering luncheon for the moms, and a formal dinner/dance for the couples. All of us started getting excited about what camp would be like. 

When the day for camp arrived, we made the three hour drive from our home to Mission Springs Conference Center. When we finally made the last turn into the entrance at the camp, we were overwhelmed with a large crowd of cheering staff and volunteers who were there to welcome us; they had been standing in the hot sun for two hours, personally greeting each family as they arrived. We looked out the windows and noticed that four of the volunteers were holding signs specifically welcoming each of our children by name. The smiling volunteers approached us and explained that they would be our children’s personal helpers for the entire week, providing constant companionship and assistance for 11 hrs. each day, with the sole intention that us parents could be 100% off-duty! Upon meeting these beaming, energetic young ladies, our hearts were touched. We soon learned that all the personal helpers (called “STMs”) not only volunteered to give-up a week of their summer, but they PAID to be there, just to help keep the cost down for families! This fact alone made us realize that there definitely had to be something special about this camp if young adults would give up their time, money, and often their comfort level, just to help bless a special needs family!

After getting settled in our room, the STMs instantly took each of our kids to show them around camp and introduce them to the other camp leaders. To our surprise, every one of our children happily bounded off with their STMs, who had been complete strangers just minutes before. As our room emptied, we found ourselves just sitting there in the silence, not sure what to do. The truth is, for the last year and a half, we’ve only been in that situation nine or ten times... and all of them have been while waiting in a hospital waiting room for one of our children to come out of surgery.

Once the shock wore off, we eventually headed to the dining hall where we met-up with our children and their STMs. They insisted on helping our kids with mealtime, and instantly picked-up extra plates while asking what kinds of foods our kids liked. Astonished, we let them do the work and again sat back in awe as our often-hesitant kids excitedly jumped in the buffet line while their STMs helped pile food on their plates! As we walked to an empty table, we noticed so many smiling faces; there were individuals, couples, families and a lot of STMs getting to know each other, or catching up from last year's camp. Some parents chose to sit with their kids while others took full advantage of the break and found a quite corner to eat in peace. 

Following the first dinner, we experienced the same atmosphere as everyone began piling into the worship center, anxious for what we had heard described as “Joni & Friends-style worship”. Now we’ve been in a lot of churches and have our opinions about what God-honoring worship is (and is not) but this was like nothing we’d ever seen. Had it not been for our experience in the special needs community, we may have first described it as chaos; people were pushing kids in wheelchairs into the isles and down to the front so they could see; children with Autism were worshiping in the corners of the room or wherever they felt comfortable; some individuals with C.P. were excitedly making whatever joyful noises they could. Sure, it looked and sounded “messy” (did we mention that at least one person had Turrets?) but it only took us a minute to get used to the difference! The best part of the worship time was that each STM was right by their camper’s side, holding their hands, pushing their wheelchair, or lifting them up on their shoulders so they could see and participate in worshiping God. It really gave a clear picture of what it must have felt like when the crippled man was lifted down to Jesus by his friends. We can only imagine that Jesus' apostles and followers must have thought that this situation seemed chaotic and dishonoring at first, but when they realized the commitment of the friends to help a disabled person reach the feet of Jesus, I can only hope they were filled with the same emotion that we were. Quite frankly, it was hard to keep a dry eye as we watched the joy and enthusiasm that filled the faces of those with disabilities since they felt comfortable worshiping Christ however they were able, without the fear of someone else frowning, complaining, or telling them to be quieter in “the Lord’s house”. 

As the week of camp progressed, we were blessed with so many of the same observations and experiences. We completely thrived in an environment where no one cared that our kids’ limbs looked different, or if one of them had a melt-down in public due to sensory overload. Best of all, no one tried to tell us that our kids could be “healed” if we just had more faith, prayed more, or went to a special therapist… all of which are common phrases we're frequently told. In fact, many parents at the camp echoed the feelings we have; our children are exactly the way God intended them to be, and we wouldn’t change that for anything! Getting to connect with other parents that had similar experiences was such a refreshing, inspiring thing for us, especially since we've felt more and more distanced from our friends that don't understand our busy medical and therapy-focused lifestyle.  

Day by day, we experienced additional blessings as we got to know other STMs and heard their amazing stories; they had all happily signed-up, not knowing what age or type of need (if any) their campers might have. While it was true that many of the campers were less labor intensive, such as the "typically-abled" siblings, lots of the campers had needs that were very involved and required the STMs to do things like holding their hand the entire day, or helping them with feeding and “drool management”, or even chasing them (yes, chasing them!) all over the property because their difference caused them to sprint away from things. More than all these things, we were especially touched by a few of the STMs who had to shrug-off their own embarrassment as their campers continually did things that would normally be defined as “socially awkward” at best. Best of all, it wasn’t just Christian college kids or "special ed" grad students who volunteered; it was individuals of all ages and from all walks of life! Many of the dedicated STMs we met were high school students, career adults, married couples, retired grandparents and even entire families; they all came to serve instead of taking a vacation or catching-up on projects at home. They truly recognized the pure joy that comes from being a servant to “the least of these” and we recognized how they were becoming more and more like Christ as they continued throughout the week with the same level of energy, vigor and compassion as the first day. By the end of the week, we became even more overwhelmed when we realized just how many of the STMs themselves were affected by a significant difference or disability... and yet they still wanted to serve someone else when they could have just attended as a camper! 

We could continue to go on and on about all the amazing activities that were planned each day, about the quality and depth of the sermons that were preached, about the ways the staff encouraged and “trained” the typical siblings to better understand their brother's/sister's needs, or about the incredible passion of the staff who have done this year-in and year-out, however there’s only so much space here. As a result, we've posted a video below highlighting our experience. We also thought we’d link to the following blog by another family as they shared about their first experience at J.A.F. a few years ago (you may notice some similar comments and experiences to ours!): Additionally, here is a great blog post by a young woman who served as an STM for the first time this year:

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