Do you remember the first time that you went to summer camp? Years later, you hear a song, and it brings back memories of campfires, marshmallows and sharing the love of Jesus.
It's that amazing time when a child is away from home, sometimes for the first time, for a whole week and unplugged from our hyper society. Ask any adult who went to camp as a child or teenager and you will likely hear stories and memories of how at camp they experienced their faith in ways they never imagined possible. There is something about being "away from it all" that seems to open hearts and lives to the movement of the Spirit in ways that are difficult to describe, yet impossible to forget.
Children and youth with special needs also benefit from these amazing and life-changing camp opportunities. Camp can be daunting and scary for children and youth with special needs and their parents, but there are people throughout The United Methodist Church who have a special calling to make sure all children and youth are able to experience camp. Camps serving children and youth from specific populations offer a meaningful and safe experience for those with special needs, whether it be autism, a physical need or poverty. These camps not only bless the campers, but those who serve at them.
The thought of sending a child with special needs to a summer camp can be frightening for parents. Yet, as children and their parents who have experienced a special needs camp will attest, these experiences can be watershed moments in the life of the child.
'Will you love me?'
Michelle Hiatt has a son with special needs. She praised Sacramento Methodist Assembly in New Mexico for being a place where her son felt safe.
"He trusts that the adults involved are looking after his physical and emotional well-being," Hiatt said. "Safety and trust are key needs for children with special needs. He was able to go to camp and be himself."
For some children, accommodating their needs means they can share songs in sign language or traverse a ropes courses with a wheelchair. For others, it might mean their small group counselors love to talk about Minecraft. Or possibly, they find friends they feel safe talking with while hiking a trail.
Those with special needs might look or act differently, but at heart, simply want to know, "Will you love me?"
Hiatt stressed the importance of parents of children or youth with special needs be upfront with the camp about their child's issues, abilities and limitations. For some children, this can be as simple as locating a "safe place" they can go in the camp or designating a "safe person" they can see if they become apprehensive. Accessibility for those with physical needs is also key.
Offering a new day
Among the camps serving children whose special needs may be hidden in most settings is the New Day Camp in the Oklahoma Conference. A ministry of the conference's Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, New Day Camp began in 1995 and for the last 21 years has ministered to children and youth with one or both of their parents incarcerated.
The Rev. Steve Byrd, a recently retired elder in Oklahoma, directed the camp for 20 years. He said most New Day campers "come from financially and socially high risk environments. Many of them are being raised either by grandparents or family members" other than parents.
While New Day began as a ministry to children from Angel Tree families, it now serves 100-125 campers each summer. New Day receives referrals from local churches, schoolteachers and counselors, the Department of Human Services and Angel Tree ministry.
Byrd said New Day Camp "works because all campers are scholarshipped, and we furnish everything for them at camp. When they arrive, beds are made, and everything they need for the week is furnished. We offer a clothing store where campers who come without much of anything are able to get the whole week's worth of camp clothing. Local churches donate supplies to the camp. It is set up like a small department store. Local church volunteers transport campers to and from camp. Amazingly, for 25 years, no apportionment dollars have been used to fund the camp."
Volunteers and licensed counselors staff New Day. They come to help minister to children and youth who often times come heavily medicated and struggling with the difficulties of having an incarcerated parent. Many of the campers begin in the elementary age camp and continue to come year after year, receiving stability and spiritual nourishing during this pivotal time in their lives.
Eight years ago, camp leadership began to wonder how they could keep the campers who "age out" involved. They began the Leadership-in-Training program, which enables campers who have aged out to come back the next summer as leaders in training to work with campers in the younger camp. Eight adults who now volunteer at New Day camp began as campers.
The New Day website says, "These children are the forgotten victims of crime, and we help them experience a New Day."
Other camps throughout The United Methodist Church bring new days to children and youth with special needs from many different backgrounds. These camps and volunteers realize children and youth with special needs offer something special – the truth that feeling loved and included is a gift to be shared and treasured.
The Rev. Tiffany Hollums is Student Minister at Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas. She is a deacon and a member of the New Mexico Conference.