My brain is still total mush from exhaustion and social output, but I'll try to summarize my weekend. I have to say that as much emotion as I feel about my experience may just come across as wordy details to someone who's merely reading. I'll tell you anyway and do the best I can.
I realized I should post a general description of Family Retreats for those who might be interested. Joni and Friends is a ministry to serve families affected by disability. In the summer, they host Family Retreats all over the country for people to attend. There is financial assistance available, so don't let that throw you off immediately.
Families come and enjoy fun outdoor activities adapted for ALL disabilities (ziplines, rope courses, fishing, tubing, swimming, etc.), small groups, rest, worship, music, comedy, dancing, a talent show, and family style dining. It is an opportunity to be accepted and loved like nowhere else. There is no person that is too odd, strange, loud, uncooperative, or disabled to fit in and be loved and celebrated at camp. Each family has an STM (short term missionary) assigned to the person with disabilities who will spend most of the camp with that person. The STM's responsibility is to host, help with mealtime, and stay with the camper so the caregivers are free to experience camp at their leisure. It's definitely a great time for all! I would encourage every family affected by disability to attend. If you know anyone who is affected by disability, please let them know about it. And anyone else who wants to serve as an STM. It's a great time to get out of one's comfort zone and serve others!
Here's what camp was for me...
We arrived at Camp ASCCA in Alabama for a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. It's set on beautiful Lake Monroe and is a great place!
We arrived and got settled while feeling like twelve year olds. We were in bunks - 16 per room! - and had community showers! I was not surprised because I had looked online at the camp site. I also had no previous camp experience to which I was comparing, but it was evidently drastically different from years past. I cannot even begin to pass on all the conversations that were had about these two details. Darlene and I ended up finding an unused shower with a curtain in another building that we frequented instead. All in all, we all decided that the positive definitely outweighed the negatives of the housing situation. We had many late night talks and laughs in our delirium (not to mention line dancing at almost midnight) that would never have occurred were we in hotel style accommodations. I made 14 friends I would have missed otherwise, not to mention the 16 ladies on the other half of our cabin!
We had two training sessions at the beginning and then got our camper assignments at 10:30 on Friday. Remember what I said about getting a teenager?? Well, no surprise, I got a 19 year old. And a 13 year old apprentice helper named Claire!
My camper's name is Katherine. She has a genetic disorder with many autistic like characteristics. She is non-verbal, though definitely not non-communicative! In all my experience, I've not interacted closely with anyone like Katherine. I knew the non-verbal part would be a challenge and might make for a long weekend (only because talking can fill up a lot of walking or resting time). Talking with people with special needs is half the fun, sometimes. So that was my anxiety: not being able to understand what she needed or wanted from us.
Meeting Katherine didn't go so well as she was exhausted, late, overwhelmed, and not too interested in a new friend. Katherine's mom is Michelle and was very friendly and easygoing.
One fun part of the weekend is welcoming all of the families. We made posters with all of their names and stood cheering as they arrived and get out of their cars. It's a great way to let them know how excited we are that they're with us for the weekend!
I had asked the Lord to give me a gift of understanding by lunchtime. I wanted to know some of Katherine's communication so I could help her feel secure, loved and have a great time. God gave us that gift within the first half an hour! Claire and I quickly noticed Katherine's attempts at communication and Katherine seemed to be settling in with us nicely. We took her to the rifle range and she loved shooting! That was the first smile we saw.
Later that day we did the zip line twice (my first time!) and seemed to enjoy that as well, though no smiles.
More settling in with each other, and the highlight of the weekend... seeing Katherine grin from ear to ear while riding around the corral on a horse. She absolutely LOVED it! Thankfully our group was small so she got to do it three times!
We had one last chapel service and loaded everyone up! Took some last pictures and said our good byes.
There was so much more that happened, but the details would probably be very boring to read and would make for a much longer blog post than this already is!
Claire was a delight to work with. She's teachable, cheerful, responsible, helpful and dependable. We got along great! She's definitely my kind of teenager!
I was very weary by the end of every day. Not sleepy, but just needing to shut down a bit, I guess. I had a camper who did not talk and it was my responsibility to provide a great camp experience. Then I had Claire and Michelle with me almost the whole time as well. We all got along perfectly, but I was worn out by days' end, that's for sure!
I had a delightful time. A week like this is vacation for me. I LOVE being around this population. I'm definitely going back, and now that I've been once I know how I could do it and take my kids along. I'd like for them to grow up with camp memories full of their friends with disabilities.
Robert (who was home with the kids) started throwing up within 4 hours of my arrival at camp... nothing like some spiritual warfare to start off the weekend. It proved to be quite a distraction as I struggled with total guilt and second guessing my decision, but finally was relieved of that during some very welcome quiet time I had with the Lord on Sunday afternoon. I had prayed for some time about going, the Lord made a way, Robert was okay with it before I committed, and I had no control over his stomach virus. One of my friends at camp who knew I was struggling said, "Do you trust that you are where the Lord wants you this weekend? If you do, then you have to trust that Robert is right where the Lord wants him as well." Hmmmm... sounds harsh, and I certainly wouldn't wish that experience on him, but God was in control here too.
There was a talent show Sunday evening. Many of the people with disabilities performed in different ways. They sang songs with words that were not understandable. They had no noticeable pitch accuracy. They stumbled all throughout their performances. But they had practiced hard, had more heart and less pride than anyone I'd ever seen, and each one of them received an exuberant standing ovation from their peers. That is one show I'll go to again and again.
One of the highlights of this trip was the drive there and back. I rode with a friend, Darlene, and her two teenage girls (who had school work to do). Darlene and I teach SS together and do other disability ministry things, but rarely have time for a conversation, so I was looking forward to some time to visit with all of them. We had a great time! We had some good girl talk, totally avoided economics in the back seat, and arrived totally giddy and excited about the weekend. The ride home was no less exciting. We began in hysterics about a camera crew incident, celebrated with Starbucks, and kept ourselves in stimulating conversation as an effort to keep our eyes open. I have to say that if my children turn out anything like these girls, I'll be more than pleased!
I have no absolutely complaints about the weekend. It was fantastic and is an experience that would bless anyone. I would encourage families affected by disability to attend and be loved on, served, accepted, and celebrated. I would encourage anyone else to attend camp in order to serve, accept, love, and celebrate. What a privilege!