What if I asked you to take a week of vacation from work, pay to travel, pay to go to a camp, work for long, exhausting hours on little sleep, get cups of water and forks thrown at you, show love and care 100% of the time to people with special needs who at times are uncooperative, and assist with everything from brushing teeth to wiping after someone uses the toilet? I had the privilege of witnessing many do this with a smile while serving at Special Camp 2019, a completely volunteer driven week of fun activities for teens and adults with physical or mental challenges.
I wasn’t planning on sharing my involvement in something like this, but one of the nightly staff meeting speakers urged us to do so positing that we all have an anonymous audience of people popping in and out of our lives that could be encouraged by the positive camp culture of being tirelessly committed to loving others. As a first time volunteer, I could instantly feel the pure acceptance of someone as they are, the warmth to care about everyone else and show them genuine attention, the humility to do so much without expectation of validation or praise, the camaraderie to jump in no matter whose responsibility a problem was, and the drive to work tirelessly on little sleep.
Love. The biggest thing that hit me was just the love that every volunteer shows to meet people where they are and who they are becoming. It was unconditional and proactive. It was patient and non judgemental. One of the simplest things I read in the Bible was to love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds so simple but it’s so hard that very few -- def not me -- end up loving everyone and always. No one was trying to “fix” or change the campers, they just took an interest in them and wanted to be with them.
Selflessness. No one would do anything for validation or praise. When a camper didn’t have a hat, I saw a volunteer give the camper his. When a camper wet his sleeping bag, I saw a volunteer sleep on the floor on a towel and give the camper his bag (which the camper also ended up wetting). There must have been 100 of these small acts of love, some of which I had the joy of witnessing but most done silently with no one watching.
Humility. Everyone was completely committed to what they were doing and presented themselves as they are - the focus was never on them but rather what they were doing and why. As we waited for the campers on the first day, one of my partners mentioned lifting weights when he was younger but now his wife has him running. I later learned “lifting weights when he was younger” meant he was the US representative for powerlifting at the World Games and “his wife has him running” meant he runs 50 and 100 mile ultramarathons. It was amazing for me to see people who were so humble and whose identity was not derived at all from their accomplishments.
Depth of character. Every volunteer and camper I met had such richness to their lives when I got to know them. While I feel quite bad to say this, sometimes at church or volunteering I meet people who are very nice but I struggle to be close friends with them as the only aspects of their personality I get the privilege of seeing is their agreeability and niceness. It was great meeting people who are incredible loving but also have amazing hobbies and even greater senses of humor and savage roasting. I met so many role models I aspire to be like.
Growth & impact. People grow where they’re loved. Unfortunately, some of the campers close up and become less communicative due to people in their regular lives avoiding getting to know them, seeing their disability first before seeing them as a person with just as much richness as you or me. Seeing campers open up about personal issues or seeing them try to communicate more despite whatever challenge they have was very rewarding and a reminder that being loved brings out the best in us.
Culture spreads. The culture that the volunteers created spread to the campers. By mid week, I could see a less physically challenged camper almost motherly guide a more physically challenged camper holding her hand as they walked and danced. I could see another camper mentor a younger, more disruptive camper by calling him his “homie”, putting his arm over his shoulder, and helping curb his behavior. The special needs camp shared a facility with a college camp and the culture spread to them, too. While the college camp could have just had a fun summer and avoided the special needs campers, many of the college campers took to serving and genuinely caring for the campers in the same way the special camp volunteers did. People see what you do and it spreads.
Invite others. Whenever someone asks to give me a hand, I usually respond “don’t worry about it, I got it” to not trouble them. I learned at camp that my response does a disservice to both them and the world. A fellow volunteer showed me how to say “yes” when someone asks to help and how giving them a task lead can lead to the person going from being a spectator to an owner who may then be inspired to make even greater contributions on their own!
Directness of affection. The campers reminded me how impactful direct and genuine communication is. One camper would yell out, “Hi Kevin!” as soon as he heard my voice. Another camper just told me, “I really like you” and another scribbled his number on a Dixie cup saying he wanted to text me after camp. Being present and just fearlessly sharing your love can make a positive impact on how others are feeling.
Hopefully, some of these aspects of camp were interesting to you. The best part is that this culture isn't limited to only camp - you can start spreading it anywhere. For a while I’ve been wondering, “Is this truly it? Have I made it?” while having fun with so many great friends, living in a bougie apartment, driving a sports car, and getting promotions at a great company. I’m thankful I was unsatisfied and led to find this opportunity. Having the honor to serve alongside so many amazingly funny, cool, and truly just good people has taught me the love and presence we show to others is far more important and memorable than any accomplishment could ever be. I still have a ton to figure out, but I hope to love fearlessly going forward and, while I will not always love perfectly, I hope to positively impact all the people around me (including you all who I am so happy and lucky to call friends).
I had no qualifications or experience for this volunteer activity. If you see something that could be growing for you, I’d encourage you to just say yes and be present. Who knows where it will lead. I’m cheering for you and who you’re becoming!
It took over a year to finally obey God's calling and serve at Special Camp. My church member Thelma, offered me to serve prior to this, but I was unsure and eventually decided not to go. I did regret the denial of this great opportunity later in the summer of 2013. When I was offered the same opportunity a year later, I didn't want to make the same mistake, so I strongly prayed. It took weeks before God told me to "go." Thelma was ecstatic in my decision to serve, while I was thinking "what did I get myself into?" No turning back, I submitted my application and was accepted to serve. I was absolutely excited and began to prepare my heart through the Word and in prayer. As camp was around the corner, I was so thrilled and enthusiastic to see what God reveal at Mt. Hermon. I took the bus up to camp and got a glimpse of some of the campers I would be serving. I was nervous and didn't communicate much with them, but they were completely open and excited for the week. I immediately felt how great they were by their warm positivism. Their aura in the bus rubbed off on me, as I became excited for the week too!
Wow... was God's presence felt or what at camp! By the second day, I fell in love with Special Camp. I was in admiration by the way the campers were accepting to everyone and how they worshiped with a full heart. God bless them! I couldn't wait til the next day to see what God had in store next! The next day, I came down with a blistering headache that lasted throughout the day. However, I pushed myself to continue to carry out my responsibilities as an aide. Having campers like Ricky, who continually asked if I was okay, gave me extra strength for the many activities planned that day. Eventually, I was physically exhausted and I did not truly ask for assistance until I rolled into main camp. I had to let the medical staff know and reveal to them my symptoms. As the nurses took my temperature, checked my pulse, and blood pressure, it seemed everyone was worried. I didn't want them to worry about me and I kept repeating in my head "Please Lord don't let me be quarantined." Fortunately my temperature was fine, but I was advised to sit out. I watched all the campers and aides go on stage ready to sing, when the nurses miraculously decided for me to sing and worship on stage. My heart was pounding with joy and for those 5 minutes on stage, my headache was nothing but a mirage. Being on stage and seeing these campers singing with full joy and delight gave me the chills. I was so touched by their unconditional will to sing for God and passion they released in the whole sanctuary... Wow! God's presence was well felt. What also fascinated me, was the support I got from fellow aides through prayer and encouragement for my health. I didn't deserve it, but I was blessed that The Lord brought many beautiful individuals who were concerned for me. I was so thankful and delighted. Before I left camp, my pastor and pastor's wife prayed for my health and then it was back to the Monte Vista camp grounds.
It was already Thursday, and I felt weak. I was disappointed in myself that I couldn't do much. I felt really sorry that I couldn't do as much as the others, but I marveled in their faith. I was blown away on how these aides served so gracefully with dedication, but also that other precious commodity: love. Shortly after breakfast, through my devotional and a conversation with a fellow brother of Christ, I was able to see what my true calling was. God was testing my faith. It's easy for me as an individual to continue to wake up, work hard, and do the work. However to sit there, watch, and do nothing, was even harder. In Ephesians 4:1 it says "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received." I remembered Paul writing this in prison what faith and such a huge calling to do that. Without him in prison there would be no Ephesians. God tested my faith and made me realize His true calling for me was. Instantaneously, I felt better from then on and was able to spend quality time with these amazing campers. Through all the many activities, I was able to see enjoyment, happiness, and growth in everyone. Being able to serve these campers with the most wonderful aides is not a chore, but is more of an honor. As much as I wanted to serve these beautiful individuals, I feel like they have served me more. The theme verse was from Psalm 43:4 "God, my joy and my delight" and I was able to see this verse into action by witnessing the joy and delight by the individuals who attended or served at Special Camp!
This is an amazing ministry. I would encourage you to be open to The Lord's calling and truly experience this experience I simply can't explain with words.
When you take a tiny step of faith, God will see you through.
Scripture promises that God will equip us for every good work (Heb 13:21.) I saw that truth first hand during my week of serving as an aide at Special Camp. Having no experience or training in helping people with special needs, I came to Special Camp equipped with only the sense that, for some reason, God wanted me there to serve. Well, the Lord did see me through the week. He was with me every step of the way. With the help of fellow aides and staff, I was able to meet each challenge that came my way. Special Camp is an amazing place to see God at work.
The Bible also tells us that we cannot out-give God (Luke 6:38.) Had I not taken that tiny step of faith, I would’ve missed a most incredible blessing. Being used by God to bless the campers turned out to be a privilege and unforgettable joy. Lord willing, I will be back at Special Camp; I wouldn’t want to miss it.
As some of the first few male campers arrived at Special Camp, I approached them with some apprehension, held out my hand for a cordial handshake and started to politely introduce myself. What I received in return was a fist bump from one of the campers, a “What’s up dude?”, and a request to take a picture with me, as if we had known each other for years. I was instantly accepted as a friend, and knew from that point that God would teach me much through my experience at Special Camp.
Throughout the week at camp, the campers continually showed me how to love others unconditionally. This was demonstrated through their giving us hugs, holding our hands, and trusting the aides unreservedly by allowing us to assist them. It was tremendously refreshing to see this type of love expressed to us. The campers' actions challenged me personally to show Christ's love to others without holding back.
The Lord taught me much through the other aides as well. Each and every one of them served so sacrificially and did not complain one bit despite being tired, having to wake up in the middle of the night to tend to the campers, or having a lack of sleep. Their actions reminded me of Jesus' desire for His disciples to be servant-leaders (Luke 22:25-27). I witnessed this servant-hood in all of the aides and was inspired to do the same in my service at Special Camp.
I would encourage anyone to consider serving next year to see what the Lord may teach you.
A Special Time
There was uninhibited worship and rejoicing, sincere interaction, effective teaching from God’s Word, and lots of fun activities and laughter. Those under care were constantly shown patience, encouraged, smothered in kindness, and given respect; those giving the care worked hard and did so with joy in their hearts.
Does this sound like a “slice of heaven” on earth? I witnessed these things taking place during JEMS Mount Hermon Special Camp, a week-long retreat ministering to those with developmental challenges. Last June was my first time as an aide, and I would like to share some of my observations with you from this memorable week.
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalms 118: 24. “Love must be sincere.” Romans 12:9
I saw campers who know a life of dependence upon on others. There were adult campers that are non-verbal, while others repeated the same phrases several times during a short period of time. Information was given, but quickly forgotten by some. One of the campers in my cabin was in his forties, yet required the type of assistance that I provided my daughter when she was two years old. He is dependent on those responsible and has to trust in others to care for him.
This high level of dependency and trust I believe is tied to something else I witnessed, something very beautiful -- lives lived “moment by moment” and with sincerity. I saw campers experiencing the joy of the here and now. Joy was not postponed until something “worked out as planned.” I also witnessed campers who freely expressed their affection for both God and others. Worship was uninhibited; those who sang and danced to the Lord did so without worrying about the opinions of others. I saw friends exchange sincere smiles, hugs, and pats on the back. One non-verbal camper was the consummate host. When you were in close proximity of this camper’s social circle, he would, through gestures, introduce you to the individual that he was spending time with and insist that you be included. Seeing you talking with the friend he was interacting with before you arrived gave him tremendous pleasure. It was wonderful to see individuals who were free to enjoy their fellowship with both God and with others and to live lives without falsehood, comparison, or worrying.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
I was reminded during Special Camp that I too must have a child-like dependence on my Lord and Creator. I certainly can’t save myself, and, like it says in the verse above, I can’t do anything of significance without Him. I’m not free to be the person I was meant to be nor do the things I was created to do without remaining in, submitting to, and trusting in Him on a moment-by-moment basis.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12
When Stephanie was still a one year old, one decision that weighed heavily on my wife, Lynne and my heart was where to send Stephanie for childcare and preschool. We had to feel good about those whom we entrusted to care for her. She would be dependent on other adults to guide, correct, and protect her in our absence.
Similarly, the parents and/or guardians of those with developmental challenges have to trust in the Special Camp staff because of the level of dependency of their loved ones. I can testify that I witnessed staff members providing an amazing level care for each of the campers. The utmost level of respect and dignity was shown to each individual. In my heart, I know God was smiling because caretakers were submitting to the Lord and allowing Him to use their arms to help bathe, clothe and even trim the toenails of others. God was able to use their mouths to give timely, gentle words of encouragement, their minds to patiently teach His Word to an audience with a wide range of learning abilities and to create fun crafts. Those with the gift of facilitating worship were used mightily. Staff members were given confidential information on the specific needs of each individual camper. This compiled information was not just read; it was studied so that the best care could be provided to those in need. During staff training time, it was stressed that the needs of individuals should always be more important than the many programs. A lot of hard work took place in preparation for the campers, and it continued after the campers arrived; yet, all staff members, especially our directors Bruce and Val Satow, took the time to patiently provide the needed compassion and reassurance to individual campers. Furthermore, the administrative staff constantly sought feedback on how to provide the best level of care and, more importantly, they created and maintained an environment of prayerful dependence. There’s that word again – dependence.
Special Camp is an incredible ministry. I hope that you would prayerfully consider how you can support and participate in meeting the needs of the developmentally challenged. Perhaps Special Camp is a ministry that you know someone may benefit from.
In conclusion, there were many wonderful things I observed during Special Camp, but I just thought of something pretty much absent during the entire week. It just occurred to me that I heard little if any complaining. Of course, this probably happens when you’re surrounded by those enjoying their freedoms found in the Lord and those focused on meeting the needs of others. Yes, the week was a hint of what is to come, a “slice of heaven.”