It’s a long drive from Colorado to Minnesota, but my soul mate, Kelly, and I wouldn’t have missed the 2014 Joni and Friends Family Retreat. This was our third time at the retreat, and it’s always feels like coming home to family.
What would make us drive eighteen hours to a camp? Our answer is what would keep us away? Being with other families affected with disabilities in a Christ-filled, restful setting is all it takes. The friendships we have made at camp are worth the trip.
Held on the beautiful property of Young Life’s Castaway Club located outside of Detroit Lakes, MN, Joni and Friends family retreat is an escape from the daily grind of life with a disability. Families arrive beaten down, but they always leave with a renewed outlook on life. For me, it’s a time for refreshment and to remind myself of the purpose of my life. It’s a time to get together with other men who are living with disabilities and encourage each other.
This year’s theme verse was Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” I loved listening to the camp’s pastor talk about hope in the midst of disability and having a chance to share that hope with other families.
It’s not all about serious Bible study though. Afternoons are free time at the lake, or zipping down the zip line, climbing the climbing wall, or taking a long nap. My friend, Scott, helps me get in the hot tub, and, one year, he lifted me out on the lake on an inflatable raft. The assistance dogs always enjoy a little off leash time known as “doggie bible study.”
This year was extra special because Joni and Ken Tada were able to come to camp. “We don’t come as leaders of Joni and Friends,” they told us. “We come because our family is affected by a disability.” Joni started a wheelchair conga line at our beach party and lead us in a hymn sing during the night set aside for adults. Ken was the tin man and told knock-knock jokes during the talent show, and I watched as my friend Josh beat him in a game of chess.
Joni and Friends Family Retreats are a week of Christ-centered ministry that provide a unique service to families struggling with the daily stresses of caring for a disabled family member. It is a time to embrace the needs of the entire family, offering a full range of activities in an encouraging and supportive environment where families living with a disability feel welcomed, understood and accepted. It is also a great opportunity for networking and building relationships with others who know both the joys and relentless demands of life with a disability.
Family Retreats take families affected by disability who are often tired and discouraged, and points them toward Christ, the only true source of strength and joy. Joni and Friends Family Retreats help to strengthen family bonds, educate the family about coping with disability-related issues and provide hope. Many have testified that Family Retreats have provided the strength to literally hold their family together.
The day-to-day realities of caring for a family member with mental and/or physical challenges can be overwhelming. Statistics indicate that families with a disabled member have extraordinarily high rates of estranged relationships, stress, financial burdens, and despair. Families affected by disability often face social isolation, which compounds their practical, emotional and spiritual needs. Through Family Retreats, Joni and Friends addresses the particular needs of families who live with these daily struggles.
Joni and Friends has been hosting Family Retreats since 1991, and in 2014, provided 21 retreats in the U.S., running April through August. Joni and Friends is now also hosting International Family Retreats, with 12 being held this year in locations such as Ghana, Ukraine, El Salvador, Romania, Serbia, China and Guatemala.
The Price family, who has five kids with disabilities, has been coming to camp for years. “We like Joni camp because of the freedom we experience there,” Scott Price wrote me. “It is the one and only place where we can feel accepted both on a spiritual level and with the disabilities in our family.
“When we leave camp, my wife and I are re-energized. We feel like we can continue our journey caring for family. The youngest kids say ‘how long until we go back to Joni Camp?’”
One of my favorite parts of camp is making relationships. From sitting around the coffee shop talking theology with a volunteer to waiting for dinner with someone with autism, I love spending time with these people. This year, I spent time with Levi.
I have watched Levi grow the last three years, and he is a reminder to me of how the Lord shines through someone living with a disability. Jesus has big plans for this guy.
Levi is eighteen and has autism, and I smiled whenever I saw him. He is over 6 feet tall and rocks his entire body when he is excited. He loves the word “dude,” and had everyone saying it by the end of camp. I had my service dog, Santana, around Levi one day. Santana loves everybody and his whole backside move when he’s excited. Levi loved Santana’s wiggles and the faster my dog wiggled, the faster Levi rocked!
Interactions with people like Levi will keep my wife and I traveling to Castaway Club for years to come. Theme verses will change. Messages will be forgotten. Joni and Ken may or may not return to this particular retreat. But the friendships made and the spiritual renewal that happens there will be kingdom changing.