This afternoon, we roll into the Best Week Of The Year: Family Retreat, AKA, “Joni Camp.” Camp is often described as, “heaven on earth!” But come on… How fun could it be to hang out with a bunch of other tired special needs families, who are probably as strung out from 24 x 7 caregiving, just as we are?
In 2011, I wondered that, too, as we prepared for our first Camp. My dear husband had been even more reluctant (I have his permission to share this):
“What are we gonna do there? Women can talk. Kids can play. But what are guys gonna do for a whole week?”
He’d famously eat his words within five minutes of crossing the bridge to the Mission Springs Retreat Center. He’d also declare the executive order that our family would be returning to Camp every year.
- A pastor/speaker provides spiritual nourishment with sermons and optional counseling.
- Breakouts are offered on topics unique to special needs families: marriage stress, parenting, and raising typical siblings.
- Children’s VBS program and fun activities: carnival, swimming, Slip N’ Slide, jump houses, petting zoo, motorcycle & hay rides.
- Custom programming and age-appropriate activities for typical Sibs, teens and adults with disabilities.
- Mom and Dad-specific discussion groups, women’s spa treatments, men’s BBQ, Couples Date Nite with dinner, live music and dancing.
All activities are optional. You can do all of it, or you can do none of it. Last year, Eddie and were “caught” on camera, ditching the square dancing to bump a volleyball back and forth. It was totally silly and we were cracking up. We did it, just because we could. Last year we met a single mom with eight children. We didn’t meet her until camp was almost over, because her tradition was to arrive, release her children into the watchful care of the STM’s… and sleep in her room for the first four days.
What’s an STM?
All this is made possible by the most unique and precious characteristic of Family Retreat: Short Term Missionaries (STM). STM’s are volunteers who come to Camp to serve as 1:1 (and sometimes 2:1 or even 3:1) helpers for each child, both typical and with special needs. Not just one STM per family. But at least one dedicated STM per child, who stays, plays and cares for each child, from sun up to sun down, for five days. STM’s actually pay upwards of $400 to serve, and many return year after year. Some even travel out-of-state to serve at multiple Camps. That is most astonishing and priceless of all. As another 1st time camper-mom put it,
“They PAID to be here?! We can’t even find people to pay to take care of our children!”
So what’s the Big Deal??
Before Camp, JAF mails each camper child a customized Social Story to prepare them for what to expect. This year, Jeremy recognized the book. He’s also now able to read. He was so excited for “Joni Camp!” that he actually sat (!) for five minutes and read the book aloud, completely on his own.
As each family arrives, all the STM’s wait on “the bridge” to greet them with wild cheers and flags with the family names hand-painted on them. Stunned, I rolled down the window. About three eager STM heads stuck their heads in, “Which one is Jeremy?? Which one is Justin?? We’re so excited you’re finally here!!!” We felt like celebrities/dignitaries, chased by paparazzi. Jeremy doesn’t get that very often. One time, we visited a “friend’s” home, only to be met at the door by the host. He requested we wash Jeremy’s hands before entering, “Because, y’know, his hands are sticky. He gets our walls dirty.”
But here we, “Enter His Gates with thanksgiving in our hearts. We will enter His courts with praise. We will say ‘This is the day that the Lord hath made. We will rejoice for HE has made us glad.”
Justin’s 1st STM in 2011 was Naomi, a high school senior and STM veteran. A high proportion of STM’s are high school and college students. Many come with no prior experience or exposure to special needs, but with hearts eager to learn and serve. STM’s actually pay over $400 to serve at each camp. $400 is an iPad or two pairs of Air Jordans for the average teen. But Naomi usually serves at both Mission Springs Camps every year, as do many STM’s. 2013 will be her fifth consecutive year serving at Camp. Out of all volunteers serving as STM’s, approximately 70% are under age 21 (40% are youth under 18.)
Jeremy’s STM our first evening was Mike. I asked what he did for a living, that he could take a week off from work like this. Mike shared he was out on disability leave because he had cancer. So he felt led to drive from New Mexico with a team of 30 other STM’s, including his two teen daughters, to serve at our retreat. I believed I dropped my fork about then.
Jeremy has a hard time entering unfamiliar, large, indoor spaces like worship centers and auditoriums. He couldn’t tolerate the programs held in the Worship Center, so his STM for the week, the ever patient Daniel, did a lot of this (and tree-climbing) during those sessions. That red blanket on Jeremy’s lap is not a blanket, but a stretchy tube Daniel commandeered into a covering, in case Jeremy was cold but unable to express it. To me, this picture is emblematic of what an STM does: To meet a Camper where he is, and love him in a way that’s unique and meaningful to him. It’s reminiscent of Another who didn’t insist we ascend to where He was (He knew we never could), but left heavenly heights to be with us where we are, and love on us with unmerited grace.
Throughout Camp, anyone is welcome to leave notes of encouragement, thanks or praise for campers, leaders, STM’s, or anyone they want to affirm and send a note of blessing. One of Jeremy’s first Happy Grams, “Dude! You did a great job petting that dog!” (Jeremy is terrified of dogs but amazingly, felt comfortable enough to pet one of the service dogs.) By mid-week, all the windows to the worship center were completely plastered, from floor to rafters, with Happy Grams.
Upon closer inspection, I realized there were more than just Happy Grams. The JAF staff and STM’s had been praying daily throughout the weeks leading up to Camp. Each day detailed a specific and detail need for the families, and by name. I was touched by this prayer dated May 28: for the fatigue of the families, that they (we) would find rest, encouragement and a deeper understanding of God’s Purpose, according to Hebrews 11. Throughout the week, everyone kept telling me to relax because everything was taken care of. But I found it hard to relax because I kept getting shocked at just how thoroughly everything was so well taken care of. Immeasurably more than I could have asked or imagined.
The STM’s stay with the kids 1:1, to enable parents and siblings to freely enjoy the many recreation options at Retreat (or not.) Meanwhile, Eddie and I usually ate elsewhere (that is, once I could surrender –or at least, pause– my control freak instincts. Because if typical moms can be helicopter parents, then special needs moms are highly evolved Stealth aircraft.) No complaints, no nagging, no interruptions, no spills, and no irritability. Just peace. Glorious peace. And food eaten, at the same time, and while still hot. Fancy that!
On Wednesday, an elegant luncheon is served for moms, al fresco, with fresh flowers, pressed table linens, silverware, and staffed by courteous high school “waiters” who came to volunteer for the day. My first year, I rounded the corner after an intense time of group sharing with other weary special needs moms, spotted the lavish spread, and broke down again. All this… was for us?!
After the luncheon, while the dads are away in the woods doing (I’m still vague on what men do for fun. Maybe hunt bears, chop wood, or some other secret, manly ritual?) the Moms are treated to massages, manicures and haircuts outdoors on the deck. Why there? For some folks in wheelchairs, it can be a challenge to get out to a salon. Even for able-bodied moms who usually put their own needs for self-care last, this meets a practical need in such a lovely way.
Later that evening –with the wives all dolled up– couples are treated to a date night with a multi-course dinner, live music and dancing. Last year, Joni and Ken actually attended our Camp. Joni serenaded the couples as they danced. What a rare privilege!
All week long, in parallel with adult activities, kids also have age-appropriate, and developmentally appropriate programming. Children with disabilities are supported by their STM’s to participate in the fully inclusive activities like VBS, a carnival, Slip N Slide, horse rides, bounce houses, square dancing, and even rock climbing. Typical siblings take part in disability awareness simulations, to foster their patience and compassion for the extraordinary challenges faced daily by their brother or sister with special needs. Kids attempt to paint with their mouths, and try to talk with marshmallows in their mouths, to experience the difficulty of communicating through a speech impediment or disability like autism. Teen Sibs also have their own breakout, including an offsite trip to the beach with leaders who are attuned to their unique needs as well. Family Retreat truly is a retreat that ministers to the entire family.
The Thursday evening Talent Show is an annual, hallowed Family Retreat tradition. What kind of “talents”? A grinning father and son in a wheelchair, the father rolling a beach ball down the son’s head, flipped up off the son’s toes, then caught by beaming dad with a victorious, “Tada!” Or an impressive recitation of all the 51 state capitols by a young man with Aspergers. Or a vacuuming demonstration from a child on crutches, that profoundly moved you for reasons you just couldn’t articulate. Or a beautiful father-daughter dance set to inspirational praise music that melted all eyes to tears. Talents and gifts come in different forms and packaging. Sometimes, God’s most beautiful blessings come gift-wrapped in hardship or suffering.
One of the few family pictures we took. Because we spend most of the time away from the kids, who were away with their STM’s and having a blast. And we all liked that arrangement just fine.
At the closing of 2012 Family Retreat, JAF staffers prayed for the head of each household. They receive a blessing as they have their hands washed: To strengthen and sustain them for the coming year, as they serve and support their families. For Eddie, it’s one of the most powerful moments of Family Retreat.
Day #1. Bedtime. Justin peering out our window, “Where’s my teacher in the green shirt? I think I need to see her.”
Day #2. Lunchtime. “Justin, let’s go take a picture with Mom.” (he yanks hand away from me.) “NO, I want to stay with her.”
Day #5. Saying goodbye. Both were crying. Ok. I was, too.
A week after we’d been home from our first Camp, Jeremy suddenly asked out of the blue, “I want Mr. Daniel!” A few weeks later, Mr. Daniel happily complied, visiting our home with his fiancée (now wife, fellow STM Tegan) to provide a Camper/STM reunion… and to gift the Kim’s with a night of babysitting.
“Heaven on earth”
At Camp, the love of Christ is palpable, intense and overwhelming. Miracles happen every day. Perhaps not miracles of physical healing, but equally impossible occurrences of spiritual healing. “Lost cause” marriages are restored, weary bodies are rested, broken spirits are revived, and withering faith rejuvenated. After all, what is a miraculous “work of God,” but to believe in Him who He sent — especially despite difficult circumstances that may not relent, improve or change. To continue to believe, have it credited as righteousness, and to have bitter hearts transformed and willed into submission under God’s sovereignty –all within five days– are miracles indeed.
“If you’re happy and you know it…”
I’m happy and excited we’re going to Joni Camp!