This was the first year I’d ever gone to Joni and Friends, or really any summer camp of any kind. I was excited, but I didn’t know what to think. I was a little nervous about who I would be paired up with and how things would go. I expected to work with several siblings, and figured that it would be easy enough to handle, but I was somehow worried and a little uncomfortable about what might happen at JAF.
Time quickly passed, and before I could really grasp it, it was time to go to camp. Our group of about thirty people gathered at the church, packed up, and headed out. It wasn’t how I’d pictured it from the very beginning. A day or two before we left for camp I wasn’t feeling 100% physically, which I was slightly worried would last the whole week, but God reminded me that He had a purpose for my life, and that this trip, and whatever happened, it was for a reason.
Upon arriving at camp I received my nametag and key for my room, which I found that I was to share with my mother and two sisters. At first I was a little disappointed because I had been hoping that I could stay in a room with a friend. But once again God opened my eyes, and soon I knew that God had put me in a room with my sisters for a reason. Soon I was glad that I was rooming with my sisters because that enabled us to talk, and yet at the same time, keep us from staying up too late.
The first half day began with training. There were all sorts of different sessions about caring for our campers, safety, rules – everything. That evening we buddied up with someone in our age group and were assigned to experience what having a disability might be like. One person would be “disabled” through dinner and two activities, then we would switch places through the rest of the activities. These activities were to help us to see how our campers may be suffering, what they may be going through, and this enabled us to better understand what it was like to be in their place. I was paired up with a girl named Bethany, and we were assigned to learn what it might feel like to be autistic for the night. She went first, so she wore special glasses and I had to make noise with a clapper every chance I got. We found that the clapper was very loud, and could get fairly annoying. When it was my turn to put on the glasses I found that I could only use my peripheral vision. It was very difficult to see directly in front of myself and I found myself straining to see around the blotches on the special glasses.
That night as the last activity we went on the back patio with cookies and sang worship songs with our worship leader, Stewart. We sang our theme song for the week, “The Future is Bright,” among other songs, but the theme song immediately caught my attention. By the end of worship time, I felt as I had never felt before. I felt such a closeness and peace with God; He was closer to me than I had ever felt before. What an amazing feeling! It gave me such a joy that I finally fully understood what people mean when they say, “I’m so happy I could cry.” I knew then that the week would change my life, and that I wanted to come back the next year.
For the next three days, I still struggled though. Even when I knew pretty much what to expect for the rest of the week, I still wasn’t sure about how it would all work out and how well I could handle everything, or if I could do it the next year. It wasn’t until Sunday night, the second to last day, that I knew for sure that I would come as often as possible and that I would do whatever I could to go to JAF next year.
Thursday, the second day of camp, I was nervous about what to expect in my camper and how the week would go. I had learned the night before that I would not be working with siblings as I had thought, but that I would be paired up with my sister Heather to take care of a non-verbal, 6-year-old boy who had a type of brain disease. His brain had degenerated so much that he could no longer understand simple commands and he didn’t even know his own name. This made me extremely nervous because I felt that if I couldn’t communicate, how could I get him to understand me at all? And if he was nonverbal, how would I know what his needs and wants were? That day we did more training, and starting a little before three o’clock, the campers started to arrive. The STMs and workers lined up and cheered the campers as they pulled into camp, unloading them after they had registered. But about thirty minutes into the welcome, it started to rain and storm, so we moved the welcome from the parking lot into the building, having people go out with umbrellas to bring the families in as dry as possible. The luggage was then unloaded after the rain stopped and the storm passed.
That night I waited anxiously for my camper and his family to arrive, but dinner came and went, and they had not arrived. I was partially relieved to find that other families were late as well, but since I am not one who does well when things don’t go as expected, my nerves were a little on edge. It wasn’t until later that night, after we had all been dismissed from the evening activities, that I received news of the family. I was told that they had been in a car accident and had been held up back home for repairs – they would not be coming. I was relieved when I was further informed that they had not been seriously injured, but I was also sad – it would be a whole year before they would have the chance to experience camp. Now I wondered what I would do and how the week would go. It was decided that Heather and I would help with other people from our age group who could use some extra help. I was to help a couple other STMs with a little boy named Preston, a seven-year-old with autism.
The next morning I met Preston’s family at breakfast. He had a five-year-old brother and identical twin two-year-old sisters. The table was a full one! I was soon acquainted with Preston’s parents and siblings, along with Preston himself. Preston is a bright and sweet boy. He is also one to keep an eye on constantly. Though he didn’t run away, he was prone to put things in his mouth, and he had many food allergies. Through the week, as I got to know him more, I was touched by his more and more frequent smiles. I was happy to see that on the dance night, he didn’t seem to mind all the loud music that I had been afraid would upset him, but rather, he loved it. He was allowed to scream as much as he wanted, which made him laugh as well as smile, and I was happy to later hear that he had never smiled as much as he had at that dance.
As I discovered throughout the week, Preston loved to be held, especially on your back. I enjoyed holding him, and even by the end of the second night, when my arms were more sore than they had ever been before, I didn’t mind a bit when he’d frequently ask, “Ride on your back, please?” As the week came to a close, I thought of how much I’d miss everyone there. In the beginning of the week, as I mentioned earlier, I had had a little bit of a doubt of whether or not I would honestly be able to say at the end of the week, “I can’t wait to come again next year!” But by the end of it, I was wondering who I would be paired up with next year, and if it would be Preston again.
The last night was the saddest of the whole week because it meant camp was almost over. There was a talent show where any of the campers or their families who wanted to participate were encouraged to do so. Now I had heard a lot about the talent show, but never had I pictured it the way it was. It was so amazing to see the smiles of the people on stage, and to hear or watch a disabled person, and know that they are not mad about their disability, but that they recognize that they are special just as they are.
At the end of the week, you may be physically tired as an STM, but you know that you have just had a week full of blessing, and more importantly, that you have been able to bless another family not just for a week, but probably for the rest of the year. We were able to serve the Lord, and it is my prayer that we were able to bring hope to the families as well.