Over the summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to work a Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Lone Tree Ranch in Capitan, New Mexico. This camp is a really special place because it provides families affected by disability with a place of refuge and rest. When a friend of mine was describing to me why he works there, he said he believed this camp is the closest thing to a heaven on earth. It is a judgment free zone where people are allowed to be themselves and openly express who they are in a loving environment centered on God’s teaching.
Joni and Friends Family Camps were designed by an incredible woman named Joni Eareksen Tada. Joni was a competitive athlete until the age of seventeen when she became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. She prayed for God’s guidance and that he would make her life useful, even if she no longer had control over her body. With His help, Joni created these camps in order to share God’s plan with families affected by disability as well as provide them with a camp that can provide much-needed rest and support. Joni and Friends Camps are now all over the world and have affected the lives of millions of people, including my own.
Every camp is designed in a way so each camper is given an STM, or Short Term Missionary, who takes care of them/ does various activities with them throughout the week. At Lone Tree, these activities include horseback riding, zip lining, water-sliding, and much more. My camper was a five-year-old “typical sib”, meaning he did not have any kind of disability, but his older brother had cerebral palsy. During the week, my job was to entertain my camper as well as interact with his family in order to learn what life is like for them on a regular basis. Although the week was challenging, for a five-year-old with endless energy can be pretty tough to handle, I learned a lot about how difficult it is for these families on a daily basis.
Because I went with a group of volunteers from my church, I was able to see how God used people with unique talents to be STMs and how each of the workers grew throughout the week. My friend Jimmy worked with my camper’s older brother, so I was able to interact with him on a regular basis. It choked me up when Jimmy talked about how he was able to understand his camper so well because of the work he has done in the past in regards to disability. In his words, Jimmy described how honored he felt to get to be his camper’s voice for the week. Other friends of mine who went also showed me what it means to serve through their interactions with campers throughout the week.
My friend Jacob was one of the most impressive. His camper had Down syndrome and did not enjoy doing the activities that the camp provided. So every day, for several hours a day, Jacob would “play” ping pong with his camper. I say “play” because Jacob’s camper did not hit the ball back to Jacob each time he served, but rather he would hit the ball as hard as he could across the room and Jacob would retrieve it while he laughed and laughed. Watching them really impressed upon me the importance of putting your camper first and doing the activities they wanted to do rather than what you wanted to do. The goal of the week was to serve these families, and if serving meant retrieving a ping pong ball a million times in order to make a camper happy, Jacob was willing to do it. Other friends of mine were equally impressive with the love and care they demonstrated for their campers throughout the week. Whether it was helping their campers eat, working to make special accommodations, or simply being there as a friend, everyone at this camp truly demonstrated God’s love and patience as they worked with these families.
I learned a lot during this week. I learned how exhausting it must be for each of these families every day of their lives. I also learned how quickly a group can form a community and work together for the good of other people. Finally, I learned a lot about myself and about God and how he is able to use everyone for the good of his kingdom. I highly encourage anyone who is able to work events like this or help with special-needs ministry to get involved, for it is truly a rewarding experience.