Last month (April 1-6), I had the privilege to serve as a Short Term Missionary (hereafter referred to as STM) at the Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Wonder Valley. Honestly, when I first agreed that I would do this, I wasn’t really giving it much thought…I just knew that I had the time, would probably be able to raise the funds, and could be of service to someone who needed it. I had heard about this camp before, having written about it for my church newsletter a while back, and I was interested in the things that they were doing there. So, I went into it thinking, “this could be a neat experience.” Let me tell you now, “neat” was a gross underestimation.
[I’ve broken this up into parts because that’s kind of how my brain works…]
Part 1: Leading up to camp
Let me start off by telling you a bit more about this camp, in case you are not familiar with it. Joni and Friends Family Retreats are week-long (roughly) camps for families who are affected by disability (whether it be physical, developmental, etc). Typically, it is one or more of the children in the family who have a disability, but the rest of the family is affected by this as well. Caring for these children is not an easy task and these families are on the job every single day. These retreats give these families the opportunity to have a vacation. Not only do they get time together as a family doing fun things that may or may not usually be accessible to them, but they also get some time to be around their own age groups, kids playing with other kids and adults spending time with other adults, and generally getting to be around people who can relate to them. One of the major ways that these retreats make all of these things possible is by assigning trained volunteers (STMs) to each family for the purpose of serving and aiding them throughout the week.
As the week of camp drew nearer and nearer, I started to think about what serving as an STM would require of me. I became a bit worried as I started to realize just how self-centered I am and how much I am used to taking care of my own wants and needs before considering others. This is a troubling thing to begin with, but it was even more disturbing to me as I knew that I was entering into a situation in which I would need a selfless, servant-hearted attitude in order to accomplish what I had signed up for. I did not want to be a poor representation of Christ to whomever I was assigned. I wanted to please the Lord by reflecting His character, and I knew that I would not be able to do so by my own strength and “will power.” Humility and servant-heartedness are things that do not come naturally to sinful mankind, but are only accomplished by the grace of God. And so, I prayed for God to change me, even if it were just for that week, into one who regards others as more important than myself (Phil. 2:3).
Part 2: Training and Preparations
Arriving at camp, the STM’s had about a day and a half of training to get through before the families arrived. We bonded together, learning about various disabilities and how to deal with different things that we might encounter and so on and so forth. Something that really meant a lot to me and remained with me throughout the week, and indeed, after that week, was that in order to serve in such a way that would display the love of Christ, we must constantly come to Him in prayer and depend completely on the grace of God.
All throughout the first day (the day before the families arrived), I was nervous, not knowing which family I would be assigned to. I kept thinking that once I knew who my camper was and what disability my camper had, then I would know, more or less, what I was going to be dealing with and could start preparing my mind and praying more specifically about my assigned family. That night, when we got our assignments, I learned that I would be caring for a 4 year-old boy who had autism. My first thought was, “now I still don’t know what I’m dealing with.” As you may or may not know, autism sort of ranges from mild to severe and the affects of it vary from person to person. So, all I could really count on was that I would have to adapt and learn as I went. And so, I began praying even harder for the week to go smoothly and for my assigned family to be able to relax, enjoy themselves, and really experience the love of Christ. It was nice to finally be able to pray for them by name.
Part 3: Meeting my Camper/family and getting started
As the time (the second day) for me to actually meet my assigned camper and family drew nearer, I became more and more nervous. Thankfully, I had many brothers and sisters in Christ around me who could encourage and pray for me. When I finally laid eyes on my precious little camper and his equally-as-precious twin brother, my excitement and joy won-out and my nervousness was no where to be seen. To my delight, the mother and father of my camper turned out to be very kind and loving people and I felt a connection with the whole family almost instantly. I quickly learned about my camper and his twin brother (who also has autism – he was assigned another STM and we worked together a lot of the time), their little quirks, cleverness, character, and the differences between them. By the end of that first day of serving my camper and his family, there was already so much love in my heart for them; all I wanted to do was spend time with them and help them with whatever they needed or wanted. I couldn’t keep from smiling as I realized that there was literally no place in the world that I would rather have been at that moment, than right where the Lord had placed me. The Lord had, indeed, already answered my prayer.
Part 4: The rest of the week/concluding thoughts
All throughout the week, my days were very busy, and I noticed that I had a lot more energy and stamina than usual, which could only have come from the Lord. I remember feeling so blessed. It was so satisfying to spend my entire day serving someone else and not focusing so much on myself. I enjoyed watching the parents of my camper relax and enjoy themselves, having extra hands to take care of things. I loved looking around and seeing so many families in such a happy state, in which they did not have all the usual troubles weighing on their shoulders. It was so neat to be in a place where everyone could just be themselves. If a child began screaming or doing other things that would usually be considered “disruptive” or “rude,” it was received with understanding and grace rather than judgmental stares and ignorant whispers. If ever a parent felt overwhelmed, there was someone there to help lighten the load. All of us STMs worked really hard throughout the week, but it was some of the most satisfying work we had ever done. I know from my own experience, and from talking to other STMs, that we left that camp feeling as though we were more blessed by the families we served and the work that God had done in our hearts than we had even anticipated. I really did not want to leave that place. I had grown so attached to my camper and family as well as the overall environment of the camp – so much so that I had a good cry as I was leaving the camp to go back home.
It was truly an eye-opening experience that I will not soon forget. My whole outlook on service has been altered for the better, as has my understanding of families affected by disability. The Lord has used this experience to grow my desire for service and my love for others. I would urge everyone to prayerfully consider trying something like this at least once. I promise you, it will be an unforgettable experience that you are likely to carry with you for the rest of your life. And, if you are like me, you will quickly decide that this is something you want to be involved with every year.
If you would like to know more about Joni and Friends, you can visit their website at: http://www.joniandfriends.org/
Please feel free to ask/talk to me more about the camp if you feel so inclined 🙂 I was not super specific in this blog because I didn’t want it to be too long and also because I wasn’t sure how detailed I should get about my particular family and whatnot. However I am open to talking about it on a one-on-one sort of basis. 🙂