This is Church, Joni and Friends Family Retreat

Joni and Friends, an organization which serves individuals with disability and their families, hosts a Family Retreat each year at Camp Allen. We went as campers last week. At Family Retreat a STM (Short Term Missionary) is assigned to each child with a disability. The STM helps the kids participate in camp to the full extent they are able. Siblings are in a group of kids their age and are also given STMs as team leaders to guide them through the week. Parents get a break. In two words, EVERYONE WINS!

Initially, I was overwhelmed by all of the different disabilities. I’ve never seen so many wheelchairs, strange sounds, and behaviors all together at once. I am used to Nathan’s idiosyncrasies–the ways he twirls his ball, clicks his tongue, and grinds his teeth. I don’t even notice his strange behaviors anymore. It was sobering to be reminded that we are one of the families represented in this unique population of people. People who are often disregarded by society because of their differences. I spent the first 24 hours submerged in the reality of our family life and how it relates to other families at camp.

To be honest, camp wasn’t completely relaxing, except for this rare moment.

Camp wasn’t restful, but this is what it was…

Camp was the most beautiful expression of the church I have experienced.

We were welcomed enthusiastically. The STMs cheered for us as our van drove into camp. We were served selflessly. Our luggage was carried to our room, and we had a LOT of luggage and equipment for Nathan. We were able to bring our children into the body of Christ as a gift to those who were serving us that week. That was a humbling and beautiful thing for me to see others love Nathan well.

Worship took on a whole new meaning to me, seeing those with physical, cognitive, and behavioral challenges come upon the stage in the chapel. They are fully accepted and not scolded for their presence in the service. at one point Nathan was crawling all over the stage during worship, along with several other kids.

Camp was a week of purposeful play, for all in our family.

Nathan was able to participate, as was Mac, in their individual ways. It was an act of trust for me to let Nathan spend the week with a STM, someone I never met before, but who wanted to spend her vacation time and money to serve our family. She helped him make crafts, fish, swim, ride on a tractor around the campground, play an instrument in the drum circle, dance at a dance party, get in a shaving cream fight, and participate in a talent show. (Visit my instagram stories saved in my profile page for more pictures.)

And there’s this one living life and enjoying his independence.

I only got two hours of sleep the first night from sharing a hotel room and enduring a thunderstorm. After that, I decided this was not to be a week of rest for me, but a week of play. I wasn’t there to sleep, or study, or write, but to experience purposeful play and enjoy time with my husband. So I rode a horse. I swam. I got a massage, then another massage and a manicure. Shockingly, I went on a giant swing, which was equal parts fear and empowering. And I participated in a family skit of “Baby Shark” in the talent show. (Again, see Instagram saved stories in my profile page.)

In my effort to keep my life simple, I often leave out the fun, frivolous things. Things that aren’t necessary to me or my family, I quickly set aside. I let go of playing and pursuing hobbies because of my responsibilities. This week was the opposite. It was a week of us all having fun. Fun because we could be included in community in spite of our different challenges.

Camp was a taste of heaven.

It is the most beautiful thing to go to the dinning hall and watch so many, eat so differently. Some with feeding tubes, some with pureed food (requiring help from others), some going up for second and third helpings of carbs (like my oldest) of ridiculously yummy camp food.

Wheelchairs can go anywhere–fishing docks, trailers used for transportation around the campground, they even wrapped the wheelchairs in plastic to protect them during the shaving cream fight. There were no boundaries for my children last week.

This is what the Church is supposed to look like. Every person has an opportunity to learn about God. Everyone is invited to dine at the table. No one is excluded because of their disabilities.

If you have any interest in going to Joni and Friends Family Camp, either as a family or a volunteer, please check it out.

My book, Beauty in Broken Dreams: A Hopeful Handbook for the Early Years as a Special Needs Parent, is now available on Amazon!

Also be sure to check out my list of Favorite Books on Disability!

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